On July 10, Frederico Lopez couldn’t take it anymore. The berry picker says he was constantly barraged with verbal abuse by his supervisor, while earning only 30 cents per pound of berries. “It’s unjust to yell at us like we are animals, simply for asking for a fair wage” he told his supervisors that day. It is no surprise that Lopez spoke up. At such a low rate, he and his fellow workers have to pick at an impossible speed just to earn Washington State’s $9.19 minimum wage.
On the hot summer day Lopez complained, he was given an eviction and a pink slip – a practice that would is routine in the fields. But on this day, Lopez’s co-workers took notice and decided not to return to work the next day. What has ensued has been an all-out labor dispute in a region widely known for its local food movement. As the farm workers press on to raise their working conditions, they are raising important questions about the priorities and social values of the burgeoning food movement.
Farm work is among the most physically grueling forms of labor. Migrants work bent over in the hot sun, or pouring rain, scouring fields for ripe berries. At Sakuma Brothers Farm, where Lopez was employed, workers were expected to live in cramped one-room cabins, often four to seven in each, and wait for low-wage contract work.
Sakuma Brothers Farm – which grows berries for large national brands such as Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs — sits perched between the snow-capped Cascade Mountains and the Puget Sound, just north of Seattle. The region is widely known for its rich agricultural land and its history as the home of the Northwest’s organic revolution in the 1970s. Though most farms in the area remain small, the Sakuma’s operation has grown to a encompass 1,500 acres. At such a scale, Sakuma Brothers resembles a corporate enterprise, more than a family farm, employing up to 700 farmworkers at peak season.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), hired farmworkers make up one third of all those working on farms in the United States. Yet farmworkers are often invisible in the food chain. Around 75 percent of migrant farmworkers come from Mexico. Among these migrants over 53 percent are undocumented (and some believe the number is much higher). When farmworkers arrive in the U.S., the employment opportunities they find are not just low-paying, but, outside of California, workers have no say in the conditions of their employment. Farmworkers often endure dire conditions silently for fear of deportation.
For farmworkers at Sakuma and elsewhere, however, the heart of injustice lies in the “piece-rate system,” which determines farmworkers’ wages based on the weight or volume of the harvest. Growers use this system as an incentive to get workers to pick more. However, such a system is an extreme form of exploitation, since growers have the sole power to set piece-rates. As a result, farmworkers often push themselves to work at unhealthy and dangerous speeds, without knowing how much they will earn or when they will work next.
The piece-rate system is also inherently discriminatory against the children, elderly and women who work in the fields and may pick at a slower speed but work the same number of hours as their co-workers. For families, this system can lead to devastatingly low household incomes. One single mother living currently working at Sakuma, told me that she supports three children with only a $14,000 yearly income. Without access to many social services, or in-state tuition for her children that aspire to go to college, she has found herself on an invisible treadmill of poverty that could last for generations.
Since 2004, Sakuma Brothers Farm has been the site of continuing labor unrest. While farmworkers have engaged in brief work stoppages to demand higher wages, the successes they have won have disappeared when the next growing season begins. This year, however, farmworkers are intent on making lasting changes. After Lopez was fired, workers called Community to Community (C2C), a farmworker-led organization in Bellingham, Washington. The organization’s founder, Rosalinda Guillen was a farmworker in Skagit County and went on to organize the workers at Chateu Ste. Michelle Winery, the only unionized farm in all of Washington State.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been working with and documenting the campaign as part of my dissertation research toward a PhD in the Anthropology Department at New York University.
With C2C’s support, the farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farm democratically elected a committee to represent their concerns to management. Eleven men between the ages of 23 and 33, have formed an association of workers now called Familias Unidas Por La Justicia. And yet while the group has secured several small victories—such as over $6,000 in back wages paid to 30 farmworker youth from the 2013 season—the situation has become increasingly tense.
On August 20, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia announced a formal boycott of the Sakuma Brothers Farms products, which include strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries, and are sold under their own label plus several other labels in Washington Sate and the Northwest. If the boycott fails to win a valid contract for the farmworkers, the workers may extend it to other brands for which Sakuma supplies its berries, including Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs. For now, however, the farmworkers are hoping that consumers can put pressure on the growers simply by boycotting the fresh berries themselves. This has proven challenging however, as the company is not entirely transparent about the brand names under which it sells the fresh fruit.
The farmworkers also hope to tap into the growing food movement. This is also much easier said than done, and the movement has been dominated by concerns about environmental sustainability and the proximity of food production. In this vision, the family farm is often an icon of sustainable, local and resilient economies. And yet, rarely are the people who are responsible for growing most of the food on these farms included in that vision.
Until now. The boycott at Sakuma offers foodies and activists an opportunity to rethink the social values of the good food movement, and to take on the slogan made famous by the late Cesar Chavez: “Si Se Puede.” (Yes we can!). Indeed, we can have a food system that takes care of all the people who grow and care for our food.
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