Posted May 29, 2014 by Cooper Point Journal in News
 
 

‘Fruta Amarga’ in the Skagit Valley

WORKERS STRIKE AT WASHINGTON BERRY FARM

BY EMILY McHUGH

“Keep your hands upon the dollar, boys, and your eyes upon the scale” – 1930s union folk song

Welcome to Sakuma Farms. EMILY McHUGH

Welcome to Sakuma Farms. EMILY McHUGH

The strawberry season in the Skagit Valley stretches for two weeks at the end of June. Workers on the West Coast circuit come in buses or cars, taking the highway along the Skagit River past the sloughs of the Puget Sound. The sky looks big in the valley over the muddy wetlands, and in June, the clouds break for the first time in months. The valley sits like a thick Montana at the edge of the western frontier, and in the summer, tulip and daffodil fields color the brawny hills.

It is almost too picturesque a place to be believed as the heart of any darkness. And yet, in the divide between legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled, bosses and trabajadores, a tricky breeze is moving now through the valley, moving across the muddy inlets and tulip sprouts, and becoming palpable in the voices of workers between the tight walls of the labor camps and murmurs in the blueberry bush.

Those voices begin at the Sakuma Brother’s Berry Farm, nestled in the heart of the valley a half-mile outside of Burlington, where a nearly yearlong struggle between the company and its seasonal employees has peaked in a momentary standoff. Over 300 workers—most of them of Mexican heritage—have joined a union in its incipient stages of formation, taking their employer to court for unfair piece-wage rates (workers are paid by the pound) and wage theft. By doing so, many of the workers are risking a job they have depended on for decades.

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The Olmeca family lives in a peeling orange duplex off Old Highway 99, south of Burlington. Five family members sit in the living room with the door open, a pack of kids play out in the front yard, the TV is on but silent.

We, two friends and I, sit with them stumbling through formalities in a mix of Spanish, English, and the Mayan language Mixteco until Marie Elena Olmeca, beautiful at 16 years old with her hair down, comes and sits with us. She has a thoughtful ease and tells us she comes from a village in Mexico called Yicuacca, but that we wouldn’t have heard of it because it’s hidden by forests on all sides.

She said that during strawberry season, she and the other workers start at about 5:00 a.m. each morning and finish between 4:30 or 5 in the evening without a lunch break.

“If you want to know, there was one day it got really hot in the strawberry fields, so hot that everything slowed down,” she said. “And so people started picking slower, and slower, and slower, and they couldn’t work anymore. They wanted to go home.”

“So some of them asked the supervisors to let them leave because the sun was making them sick, they told them they wanted a lunch break. But the supervisors said ‘no.’ And the supervisors told them if they left, they’d lose their job,” she continued. “But some of them did leave, anyways, because they couldn’t stand to stay, and the supervisors blocked them at the door and took their identification numbers and told them they’d get fired.”

The supervisors blocked them at the door and took their identification numbers and told them they’d get fired.” – Marie Elena Olmeca

“It was like that when we started the boycott. The next day, there were two sheriff cars parked outside the field gate, all day and all night, we watched them but they never left,” she said. “People were scared to drive their cars and get pulled over without their documentation. Three or four days they stayed like that, only leaving for an hour now and then.”

The Sakuma workers’ boycott and strike were, by many accounts, sparked by the firing of Federico Lopez, who approached supervisors with a group complaining about low piece-wage rates and lost his job in July of last year. Increasingly, dire evidence plagued and invigorated the workers in the following weeks and months, according to union leader Ramon Torres, exposing the further culpability of the company, especially instances of wage theft or inconsistency in pay.

On April 11, Sakuma Farms applied for 438 guest worker visas from the federal Department of Labor, employing the H-2A policy, which enables large-scale agricultural operations to source labor outside U.S. borders for a seasonal working period, provided there is a labor shortage. If carried through, Sakuma would bring in 438 workers of the 500 generally hired for the season from Mexico between June and Oct. 15. Afterward, the guest workers would return to Mexico, after effectively displacing almost the entire immigrant workforce currently employed at Sakuma. According to Ramon Torres, the leader of the workers’ association Familias Unidas por la Justicia, threatening to bring in H-2A guest workers embodies the persistent disregard Sakuma authorities have shown immigrant laborers, many of whom have picked strawberries in the valley for more than 30 years.

But core to comprehending the difficulty of forming this union of seasonal workers is understanding migrant life. Circuited by the seasons, most of the berry pickers in Skagit come only for the duration of the harvest before moving on to California or Eastern Washington to work another crop. With so much movement and inconsistency, forming a strong union body is, according to Torres, a real challenge.

“Right now, most people are at other jobs, but they’ll be coming back,” he said. “So that’s part of why we are sort of on hiatus. But people are really interested in this, they care about it, and so they are supporting us in whatever ways they can.”

New cabins built in the labor camp for the H-2A guest workers. EMILY McHUGH

New cabins built in the labor camp for the H-2A guest workers. EMILY McHUGH

Last month, the Sakuma workers wrote hundreds of letters to the company, stating their desire to work the coming season and signing with their identification numbers in an attempt to derail the repeated message of farm relations claiming the strikers did not want to work.

Ramon explains that a major issue of their struggle has been to secure a fair method of monitoring piece-wages. According to Torres, the scanner the farm uses to register the weight picked per person per day is faulty, and the supervisors often claim the system crashed, leaving them no other option but to estimate the wages owed to the workers.

“They say the system crashed or they say the rain was bad for the machine and so they have to guess, but it’s just a way of stealing from us.”

Last month, union members wrote a mandate of 14 conditions for returning to work, the top requirements calling for medical coverage and improved living conditions at the farm’s worker housing.

“In the labor camp, the walls didn’t have any insulation and rain dripped through,” he said. “There were rats around the children and if you told them, they wouldn’t do anything about it.”

According to Torres, after the union filed its suit against the farm, putting Sakuma under legal inspection and the eye of the press, the oldest and most unlivable cabins were demolished and new ones were built, furnished with amenities like sinks and new bed matts never seen in the older shacks. Marie Elena Olmeca’s father said families of eight or nine were put in single cabins at the camp, not more than 12 by 12 feet in size, but since the suit, Sakuma has been diligent in regulating four people to a cabin.

We’re striking because the people aren’t afraid anymore. There’s nothing more to be afraid of.” – Ramon Torres

“We’re striking because the people aren’t afraid anymore,” he put it. “There’s nothing more to be afraid of.”

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Behind the white picket fence at the Sakuma office, the Sakuma brothers (Steve, Bryan, Richard, and Glenn) work to maintain a customer base in Mexico, Japan, Canada, and Europe, an average annual sales revenue of $6.1 million, and sister berry farms in Redding and Shasta, California. The first immigrants of the Sakuma family came to America from Japan around the turn of the 20th century and started a little farm on rocky Bainbridge Island, delivering berries to the markets at Pike Street via ferry. They uprooted and moved their farm to Burlington before the start of World War II, when the entire family was forced into internment camps, only able to return to their farm when the war ended.

Their family history can be read on the Sakuma Farm’s “About Us” webpage, where it says the first generation came to “pursue the American Dream.” It imparts of honest immigrant sweat and suffering, of an American Dream that exists in dusty black and white photographs of hard-worked men and women with bent shoulders and skinny-legged children, of small beginnings and, somewhere, of the distinctly American notion of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. But, though it doesn’t say it with much detail, it is also a history of American racism and the lot of the laboring minority.

But settled now in a nice house in the valley, the Sakuma brothers have rolled down their sleeves. It is not hard to imagine that those cardinally rough American beginnings are not much more than a charming but rather distant folktale, an identity deeply rooted in struggle that can be difficult to locate in the dense atmosphere of commercial enterprise.

While the Sakumas could not be reached for comment, they published another article on their webpage titled “Facts about the Current Labor Issue,” in which they say this:

“With the 2013 berry season winding down, the organizers of a local labor committee have begun to get desperate and resort to telling outrageous lies and conducting publicity stunts with the hopes of generating negative attention on Sakuma Brothers Farms. Unfortunately, the efforts to generate publicity are being directed at an 85-year old family-owned business with a long history of providing its employees with the best wages and work environment possible.”

Raspberry field at Sakuma Farms in the Skagit Valley. EMILY McHUGH

Raspberry field at Sakuma Farms in the Skagit Valley. EMILY McHUGH

Back in the Olmeca household, Marie Elena said that Sakuma has always allowed children ages 12 and up to work picking berries, but since the strike began and the farm was subjected to increased inspections, they’ve changed their policy to 18 and over.

“But, it isn’t fair,” she said. “12-year-olds have always been able to work, at least 40 do every season. People depend on that.”

“I know it looks bad,” she said. “But they started it.”

The sun is going down and again the valley looks dreamlike, coming in rays through the Olmeca doorway.

“The way they decide the wages,” Elena said. “They have a race between one of the fastest pickers, a medium picker, a slow picker, and a supervisor, and then they average the amount everyone could pick. But there are only a few fast pickers, and it throws the whole thing off. They make it seem like a game, and then everybody gets paid less.”

There are other things. There is the $50 dock from a weekly salary for social services undocumented immigrants cannot benefit from, and the incoherence of $4 in the pocket from a box of blueberries sold for $12. There are strained hands and thrown out backs on the job that don’t get covered, wage changes from field-to-field that don’t make sense.

“Mr. Sakuma feels that we don’t want to work for him,” Marie Elena said. “But we do want to work for him. He doesn’t know, but without us, there would be no berries. He doesn’t know how to grow them anymore.”

As we began to say our goodbyes and shake hands across the little kitchen table, Marie Elena’s father laughed from the couch and pointed to the TV. There, in black and white, the news network was playing a clip of the Latin labor hero Cesar Chavez giving a speech. Her father shouted something in Mixteco and Marie Elena laughed and translated.

“He says we’re going to beat them. We’re going to beat them like Cesar Chavez did.”