By Dean Shelton
10th District Union Representative (IAFF)
As I sit and write this story today, the berry fields of Skagit Valley Washington are soon to be harvested. Since 2013, the berry crops have been surrounded by controversy and what has become a fight for basic human rights: what many of us take for granted.
This fight for justice for a group of farm workers officially began just three years ago, but perhaps started many years earlier after demands to improve working and living conditions fell on the deaf ears of an unjust employer. This movement to improve conditions led to the creation of “Familias Unidas por la Justicia," an independent farm workers' union based in Burlington, Washington.
Workers picking crops for Sakuma Brothers Berries were often faced with racial harassment, wage theft and many other unjust labor practices. In addition, many of the workers lived in deplorable conditions that included cramped quarters, bed bugs, unsafe drinking water and poor ventilation.
This historically rich agricultural community has over the years seen migrant families travel in and out to pick its crops but in recent years, as agriculture has changed, so has the migrant worker. Many of these workers are second or third generation workers whose families have loyally worked for Sakuma Brothers. But after years of attempting to improve conditions, the workers said "Enough!" and attempted to form a union. Ironically, the Sakuma family themselves were Japanese migrants, interned during World War II and subjected to similar types of conditions that their workers were attempting to improve.
In addition to the struggles with the company, the farmworkers also were subject to the stereotypes made by the community; many who still refer to migrants as “illegals” or as “temporary” workers but who are simply asking to receive what they deserve. Arguments that the employer cannot afford to improve working conditions have also been a basis for community support of the employer but with annual earnings estimated at $20 million dollars, financial hardship is clearly not the case.
To date, the membership of “Familias” has grown to over 300 members. Some are local but many travel from California and parts of Mexico. Since 2013, Famlias has improved the conditions for their members. This includes increasing their wages to $12 an hour, securing clean bedding and mattresses, having retaliatory bosses removed and receiving back pay for over 30 farmworkers. Yet, their work is still not done.
Sakumas is a major provider of berries for companies such as Driscolls and a boycott campaign has been spreading nationwide in an attempt to force Driscolls to stop using Sakuma berries.
In addition to the boycott, the leadership of Familias, led by Ramon Torres, continues to work to bring recognition to their workers against an unjust employer. One such recognition included a wage and hour lawsuit that was settled with Familias Unidas por la Justicia for a record $850,000. However, Sakumas, instead of admitting guilt for wage theft, continues to deny guilt and has held out from returning to the negotiation table.
Dean Shelton currently serves as the 10th District Representative for the Washington State Council of Firefighters and also serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Marysville Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 3219.