BURLINGTON, Wash. (May 6, 2014) — Farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms who staged a six-day strike last summer over low wages and poor working conditions — and subsequently held additional work stoppages to protest the company’s retaliation against workers who had walked off the job — have been told by the Burlington berry farm’s owners that they will not be rehired this season, even though many have worked at Sakuma for years. Instead, the company is applying for new H-2A guest workers to do that work.
Last summer’s actions were the result of years of efforts to improve working conditions at Sakuma. In a statement issued by their union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, they explained:
We are 300-plus predominantly Triqui and Mixteco people… Many of us have been coming to Skagit County to pick Strawberries, Blueberries, and Blackberries for Sakuma Brothers Farms for years. Every year that we have been coming to Sakuma Farms we have tried to ask for better wages, housing, and treatment from the Sakuma family. After years of trying to change the conditions we felt it was necessary to organize into the Union that we are today to make a lasting impact.
But last Thursday, Sakuma Brothers announced that it would not be bringing back workers who went on strike last summer. As members and supporters of Familias Unidas por la Justicia were marching at the May Day rally in Seattle (see a video of Familias Unidas President Ramon Torres was speaking at the rally), Sakuma Brothers posted an announcement that said:
[W]e must ask why the very individuals who walked off the job last year because of alleged wage theft and mistreatment are now so eager to again work for Sakuma Brothers? The fact is that many of those who worked here last year have disqualified themselves. If they were part of the work disruptions, under the guest worker contract, they abandoned their jobs and are therefore not eligible to be rehired. We have mailed letters to 379 employees who worked for us in 2013 to inform them that they abandoned their jobs and have disqualified themselves from working for Sakuma this year.
The next day, The Nation published a story — “Why Is This Farm Using Guest Workers as Strike Breakers?” — about the use of guest workers at Sakuma. (Note: Familias Unidas and its members are not currently on strike, and they have been communicating to Sakuma that they are willing and able to return to work.)
As the Skagit Valley Herald reported on Sunday, Sakuma workers who are being told they won’t work there this season are angry over the company’s use of the H-2A guest worker program to displace them. Attorneys representing the farmworkers sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor last week urging the agency to deny Sakuma’s application for H-2A workers for the reason.
“Employers have had many excuses for removing workers from the fields for asking for better wages and working conditions,” said Rosalinda Guillen, who works with Community to Community, a Whatcom County group that advocates for migrant workers. “They did not abandon their jobs.”
This morning (Tuesday, May 6) Familias Unidas invited members of the labor community to join them for a meeting at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College, 6737 Corson Ave. S. (The meeting is from 10 a.m. to noon in Building B, Room B102.) They hope to determine next steps in pressuring Sakuma Brothers to rehire local workers and treat them fairly.
For more information or to join a listserve with the latest information on this effort, email Jason Holland.