Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington was the first place my father worked when he came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 17. It’s where he met my mom, who migrated seasonally with my grandparents from Texas to California to Washington to pick berries.
It’s also the first place I ever worked, starting when I was 12 years old. Growing up, the farm had a three-week summer program where kids 12 and up could go out and pick berries and earn a little bit of cash.
If you’ve never picked berries before, let me tell you, it’s not an easy job. You’re literally down in the dirt for long hours under the burning sun. Definitely not the ideal way a 12-year-old wants to spend her first weeks of summer vacation.
My mom would always remind me that this was a good opportunity to experience what it means to work hard. It builds character, she said.
In those three weeks I made $86 working six-hour weekdays. No, not $86 a day — that was for the entire three weeks. Since it was so little, my mom let me keep the money, but only after reminding me that when she was my age most of what she earned went directly to her parents to help the family.
My next experience working for Sakuma Brothers came when I was 16. I worked out in the field as a checker — I would weigh the berries workers brought back from the fields, and scan in the number of pounds picked for their paychecks. Many of them had their children out there helping.
Then when I was unable to find a job the summer after my freshman year of college at the University of Washington my mom dragged me back to Sakuma Brothers to apply to work in their processing plant. I was posted in the freezer, where I’d spend hours picking out the bad blueberries as they came down conveyor belt.
I stood beside one of my friends on the line that summer, complaining incessantly about how horrible it was — how I felt like a robot doing the same mechanical motions for hours on end.
‘A natural distrust’
While I was there during the summer of 2014, workers won a $850,000 wage-and-hour settlement from Sakuma Brothers over improper logging of hours and rest breaks.
At the same time, talk was spreading amongst the workers about a group called Familias Unidas Por La Justicia (Families United for Justice or FUJ) which would fight for better treatment by the company.
Founded the previous year by a Ramon Torres, a former worker, the group is still pressing for a union contract, a guaranteed $15-per-hour wage and better working conditions.
You might have heard of this movement — Torres hopes you have. Currently, FUJ is encouraging consumers and retailers to boycott of Sakuma Brothers, which is one of the largest berry farms in Washington, and their main distributor, Driscoll’s Berries.
FUJ wants to represent the hundreds of workers in legally binding contract negotiations with the company. But Washington state law doesn’t provide a framework for farmworker unions, and the company is pushing back, saying the FUJ doesn’t have the support of all of the workers.
Danny Weeden is the new CEO of the company. Last March he took over for Steve Sakuma, the third generation of a Japanese American family that’s been farming in Washington for over a century.
Sakuma Brothers management doesn’t typically give interviews. But Weeden agreed to speak with me, probably because he knows my family, particularly my uncle, Jorge Morado, who works there as a mechanic fixing machinery for tractors and farm trucks.
He framed the dispute as a need for the company to protect workers who weren’t interested in representation from FUJ.
“[Some workers] don’t like these activists groups because they say they’re intimidating and disruptive. That was very concerning to me because I want our workers to feel safe and that this is a safe place,” Weeden said. “I think they have a natural distrust because of maybe how they’ve been treated in other places… So I want to work on building that trust.”
He says it’s not labor conditions that are the problem, it’s the media. As word about the farm workers’ struggles at Sakuma continue spread online, Weeden says they carry false information about what conditions are really like at the farm.
“If any of the things said by these groups were true I’d be against it, but who wouldn’t? But they’re not true,” said Weeden. “It’s disheartening that these groups can just continue to create this hubbub that’s 90 percent based on lies or things that happened 3-4 years ago. It’s not anywhere near the truth of what’s going on today.”
But Ramon Torres, the founder of FUJ, says it’s Sakuma Brothers that isn’t being honest.
“Yeah, maybe it’s lies for them. And if what we’re saying is lies, what do they say about our demands for breaks, including lunch – we didn’t have those. What do they say about the ripped couches and dead rats in the cabins?” said Torres in reference to the housing for workers provided by the company.
Fighting for $15
In the proposed contract, FUJ is also asking for a medical plan for all workers, to be paid for by the company, a prohibition against children under 17 years old working in the field, negotiable and equitable hiring and firing practices, a pesticide safety committee with union representation, union representation in the development of supervisor training program, and a union label on all harvested products.
But the central point of conflict for both parties arises through Sakuma’s new wage program. In theory it allows workers to earn up to $40 an hour, depending on how much they pick. But the minimum hourly rate is far lower.
Weeden acknowledged that during last year’s listening session, where workers were given the opportunity to voice their concerns, they didn’t understand how exactly the program worked — they just knew they were making good money.
However, Torres isn’t buying the sentiment that workers are pleased with the wage system.
“If that were true, do you think people would be fighting it? It’s hard work. If they’re saying they can earn up to $40 an hour that would mean they’d be picking 100 pounds per hour. That’s impossible,” said Torres. “I have members from the union that worked there last year and none of them made more than $25 an hour.”
Torres and FUJ want to get rid of the piecework payment system altogether and instead want a guaranteed $15 per hour for all workers.
No one does it because they love the job. Workers return year after year because they need the money and they don’t have many other opportunities.
Torres also says that FUJ had previously been negotiating with the Sakumas, but ever since Weeden came in he’s refused to talk to them. Weeden counters that he hesitates to sit down and talk with the activists because he’s unsure if he can trust them.
“What is your real motivation and do you really care about the workers?… I know I do, but do you?” said Weeden. “If they acted differently, seemed more trustworthy then maybe I could feel comfortable talking to them.”
Rallies down the coast
Until their demands are met, Torres says FUJ will continue promoting the boycott.
In March he and a group of representatives from FUJ travelled around California to raise awareness about the situation at Sakuma Brothers and build connections with other farmworker groups. But they didn’t always find support.
Ramon Torres rallies workers at one of more than a dozen stops on FUJ’s California tour
They joined aggrieved workers from San Quintín, Mexico, who also supply the Driscoll’s brand, to promote the boycott at the annual Cesar Chavez farmworker march in Salinas. But the representatives of the United Farm Workers, the largest farmworker union in the country, removed UFW flag’s from the stage before they spoke, and asked marchers not to carry ‘Boycott Driscoll’s’ banners.
Currently, many stores in Seattle and around the state continue to carry Driscoll’s Berries, which is the largest berry distributor in the world.
A May 7th FUJ protest against Driscoll’s at the Costco in Burlington made national news on Democracy Now! FUJ has also applied pressure through actions at Whole Foods stores, Driscoll’s headquarters in Watsonville, California, and at Sakuma Brothers Farms itself.
Many consumers have signed on for the boycott, and some stores seem to have acquiesced as well but none of the several stores I called were willing to talk about it.
“In short, we do not sell berries from Sakuma,” said Susanna Schultz, marketing director of Central Co-op a store known for it’s labor consciousness. But she didn’t want to say more. Other retailers like Costco declined my requests for comment.
Next up, Torres says FUJ is planning a trip to the East Coast to spread the word about Sakuma Brothers and the Driscoll’s boycott.
“We want Sakuma to do the right thing,” said Torres. “This is all we’re fighting for. Now, we simply want [the contract] signed.”
It’s easy to ignore how much work goes into getting the berries we eat. Most of us just go to the store and buy them without ever thinking about the people who pick them.
No one does it because they love the job. Workers return year after year because they need the money and they don’t have many other opportunities. At least that’s how it was for my grandparents.
Having had so much family history with Sakuma Brothers myself, I know how hard the work is. But I still don’t know what to think about the company.
Both Torres and Weeden claim to be standing for the workers and protecting them against each other. Rank and file Sakuma Brothers employees can be found supporting both sides.
My uncle Jorge, who used to be the strawberry crop manager for Sakuma, says that many felt pressured to join FUJ.
“Many of the workers come from the same state in Mexico, so I think a lot of them felt peer pressured. I had a couple workers tell me they were more interested in working than getting involved in the politics,” he said.
While my uncle believes the company goes above and beyond to take care of their workers, other’s in my family reason that pressure on Sakuma Brothers is helping — that before FUJ came along the company didn’t treat the workers as well.
Another family member who used to work there pointed out that they didn’t provide pickers breaks and were told that if they didn’t come to work every day they would be forced to move out of the company housing.
Of course, all of this happened before Weeden came along, and those complaints were supposed to be settled in the 2014 lawsuit. But if Weeden is right that the company has the workers’ best interest at heart, then why are they still facing so many problems with labor activists?
I certainly don’t have all the answers. But the things proposed in FUJ’s contract definitely don’t seem out of line with the rights every worker should have, and are things I would want if I was still working there.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have options — I’m in college now and I know I won’t be working at Sakuma Brothers for the rest of my life. But it’s important to pay attention to the issues of those who will.
I always remember my mom putting things in perspective when I’d complain about the work.
“You don’t realize how lucky you are,” my mom would tell me. “You only have to do this for the summer. Some people have to do this all year long for the rest of their lives.”