BURLINGTON, Wash. – On a recent morning at Sakuma Brothers Farm, eight Latino workers sat on a bench seat behind a tractor, planting strawberry roots that will bear fruit in a few years. Dust masks and goggles covered their faces.
There’s a good chance these field workers have joined, or work side by side, with a group calling for a union contract here.
Sakuma Brothers runs large operations here and in California, selling berries to top brands like Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Yoplait yogurt. The four-generation family farm is an institution in this part of the state, but lawsuits, worker strikes and consumer boycotts have plagued its past few seasons.
Some workers say the only way to make things better is to allow a union contract.
A few miles down the road at the steelworker union hall, Ramon Torres says about 460 current and former Sakuma workers have joined this movement. Torres is president of Familias Unidas Por la Justicia – Families United for Justice – which calls itself a union.
“We have families that have worked 10 to 11 years for Sakuma. Season after season, the same families come back to work here,” he said. He said those families want to keep working here – but with a guarantee of fair conditions and wages.
Rosalinda Guillen, a longtime labor organizer, was with him at the union hall. She grew up in these fields and has helped Torres’s group push for a contract.
“This company has ruined a lot of the trust and the goodwill that they used to have,” Guillen said. “In order to build trust with workers again, they have to sign a union contract.”
The labor unrest flared up a few years back. For the first time, Sakuma brought in guest workers through the federal H-2A visa program. Local workers claimed the foreign crew displaced them and was paid better. The company disagreed. But the relationship became fraught, and longtime workers said they wanted to lock in some job security.
At the union hall, Guillen opened a stuffed three-ring binder.
“What I brought here are copies of past agreements that the Sakuma family signed with the workers,” she said. “These are all the agreements that they broke.”
Torres pointed to signatures of the farm’s recently retired CEO, Steve Sakuma.
Historically, farm worker contracts are difficult to achieve. Only about 2 percent of farmworkers in the county are part of a union. California is the only major farm state that offers a legal framework for this type of union to operate. Which means that Familias Unidas in Washington state is charting an unusual path.
The dispute has prompted several worker strikes and lawsuits. And it’s put other farms on notice. A pending court decision on wages could cause ripple effects through the industry.
Torres and Guillen said workers plan to keep up the pressure. And they're hopeful Sakuma will eventually come around.
“They say that they are a good neighbor and have been here as part of the Skagit Valley for five to six generations,” Guillen said. “So have we.”
The man who has inherited this labor dispute at Sakuma has heard the workers’ message. That’s Danny Weeden, Sakuma’s new CEO. He’s one of the biggest changes at the farm this season, as the first non-Sakuma ever at the helm. He came on to help the company at a turbulent time.
“For the most part we were doing the right things,” Weeden said. “We needed to change some things, too. And we’ve done that. And we’ve addressed that. And we’re going to continue to get better and better and better.”
They fired some managers and intensified training workshops. They added new benefits, including a housing stipend for workers who don't live on the farm. They also plan to bring in more mobile health clinics and expand recreational programs. And – here’s the big one – they revamped how field workers get paid.
Weeden said Sakuma will still pay based on production, but more than before. Everyone will earn at least $10 an hour; faster berry pickers could make up to $27 an hour. They will also now pay for rest breaks, which is an issue in yet another pending court decision.
“Our most valued resource on our farm are our people and our workers,” Weeden said. “So that’s why our mantra is caring and compliance. That’s what’s going to get us for the long-term success of this company.”
Legal action prompted some of these changes. A federal class-action lawsuit forced Sakuma to pay out workers who said the farm shorted their wages. That settlement last year cost $850,000 and marked a rare win for farm labor. Familias Unidas has also won legal victories on claims that Sakuma retaliated against them in the company housing and in hiring practices.
As for the union, Weeden appears uninterested in further talks. He said that hit a dead end. And he said he believes the company is headed in a good direction.
Walking through the berry fields, Weeden and other managers said they rely heavily on the bilingual supervisors to help with worker issues. But they aim to get more directly involved, too.
On the walk, Rich Brim, company vice president, pulled out his phone.
“We believe in caring and compliance,” he said, parroting a company mantra.
The phone interpreted into Spanish: “Creemos en el cuidado y el cumplimiento.”
“I’ll practice that one,” Brim said. “And that’s a guarantee.”