Blackberries 05.” Credit: Seher Media

June 26, 2017; American Prospect

On Sakuma Brothers berry farms in Washington state, indigenous migrant workers drew on the strength of their community to fight for workers’ rights and union representation. After four years, they have succeeded and formed Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ).

Fifty-six percent of Americans approve of unions, and the National Labor Relations Board received nearly 3,000 petitions for union formation just for nursing home and non-acute care employees between 2000–2010. Despite these figures, unions are in decline in the United States; in 2016, only 10.7 percent of U.S. laborers were part of a union, with union membership almost evenly split between government and private sector employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Jobs with Justice policy analyst Michael Wasser asserts that “current law does not offer working people a level playing field, advantaging chief executives set on denying their employees’ right to organize and negotiate together.”

In western Washington, however, a group of indigenous farm laborers has beaten the odds and formed the first new farm workers union in 25 years. For years, Mixtecos and Zapotecos from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico have been coming to this area to pick berries and other crops, many as undocumented migrants. One in ten U.S. laborers overall is undocumented, but the figure rises to one in two for farm workers. On farms and elsewhere, indigenous peoples (as NPQ has documented) face disproportionate levels of discrimination, unsafe working conditions, and violence.

“We are part of a movement of indigenous people,” says Felimon Pineda, FUJ vice president. “Sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. They’re wrong. The right to be human is the same.”

Systemic discrimination is compounded by the fact that most of the workers don’t speak English, and many don’t even speak Spanish; they speak Triqui and Mixteco, which Sakuma representatives do not. Ramon Torres from Guadalajara was elected to represent the workers in negotiations (and ultimately became president of the union) even though he is not technically a member of the indigenous community, in part because he is able to communicate in Spanish.

The strength and internal cohesion of the indigenous community made the formation of FUJ possible. In 2013, workers contested a low pay rate and poor conditions in the camps where migrants lived. One worker was fired, and all of his more than 400 colleagues stopped the harvest to get back his job and housing. In 2015, workers discovered that their boycott of Sakuma berries was being undermined by labeling the boxes with the distributor, Driscoll’s, instead of the grower, Sakuma. Thousands of workers at other Driscoll’s subsidiaries as far away as Oaxaca and Baja California joined the strike and boycott.

“Their strike movement is indigenous,” says Pineda. “Everyone involved in our union in Washington is indigenous also.”

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community, a farm worker cooperative and advocacy organization in Bellingham, told David Bacon at The Nation that “indigenous culture plays a huge role, especially people’s collective decision-making process. The strong bonds of culture and language create an ability for the union to grow stronger.”

Over four years, workers and company representatives inched toward an agreement, rolling between incremental gains for the workers and immediate strikes when agreements were not upheld.

“Strikes were the easiest way for us to get the company’s attention,” Torres said. “We didn’t have any other way. And strikes helped develop people’s understanding that if we had a union contract, we’d be stronger. Even if we won an increase in the piece rate one day, the company could lower it again the next day. It was a way for us to win over the people.”

Finally, in May 2015, FUJ sent a letter to Danny Weeden, President and CEO of Sakuma Brothers, saying,

Our members are ready to start harvesting and we ask that the families that have worked for you for years be rehired, be able to work with no reprisals, including our union leaders that were fired in 2013 and 2014; that housing be provided again and that you remove the security guards, cameras, and fences.

We want you to know what we have repeatedly told Steve Sakuma; what we want is a union contract; we are people with families just like you and everyone else. The only thing we want is to negotiate and assure a better future for our children.

In September of 2016, workers at Sakuma Bros. voted to have FUJ represent them in negotiations, and on June 15, 2017, an agreement was ratified. According to the FUJ website, “Official vote counters Jeff Johnson President of the WA State Labor Council and Steve Garey former President of the Steelworkers Local 12-591 tallied the vote and announced it was over 85 percent in favor [among workers] of ratifying the tentative agreement.” The agreement was signed the next day.

Workers received union recognition and representation, a new wage system that guarantees them an average wage of $15/hour, a grievance procedure, and more.

Torres and his colleagues are determined that this contract is the start of a new life for their community, not simply the end of workplace strife. FUJ members plan to buy property, start a co-op farm, and continue putting down roots in the community. As NPQ has previously pointed out, when workers and others feel safe and connected to a community, the whole thing functions better, so likely this will benefit eastern Washington. The community strength and determination of FUJ is an admirable example to nonprofits and advocates everywhere.— Erin Rubin