More than a week has passed since more than 200 berry pickers walked off the job at a major farm near Burlington, marking the third strike at Sakuma Brothers Farms since July.
Organizers for the striking workers say this latest walkout was sparked by Sakuma’s firing of the group’s leader, Ramon Torres. However, the underlying cause of the labor unrest connects to the federal H-2A visa program for foreign guest workers.
Rosalinda Guillen, a spokeswoman for the workers on strike, describes what sounds like a tale of two labor camps this season at the berry farm. One camp houses the domestic workers, including many families who’ve worked at Sakuma Brothers for more than a decade. In the second camp are more than a hundred workers from Mexico who are here on a special visa for the harvest.
Guillen says Sakuma is paying the guest workers higher wages of $12 an hour and giving them better housing, with new stoves and mattresses. She says it’s a different story for the domestic workers from Washington and California.
“They’ve never received the kind of improvements in the labor camps that guest workers are receiving,” Guillen says. “They’ve never been offered $12 an hour.”
Guilllen says Sakuma’s different treatment of the two groups has angered the domestic workers.
“[It’s] actually hurt them a lot that there’s that little regard for their skills and the work that they’ve done to help this company grow and become as large and as powerful as they are,” Guillen says.
John Segale, a spokesman for Sakuma Farms, says the workers’ claims about wages and housing are absolutely false.
“We would be in violation of federal law if we did that,” Segale says.
Segale explains that the federal H-2A program requires the company to compensate foreign and domestic workers equally.
“The fact of the matter is Sakuma Brothers Farms pays all seasonal berry workers – both foreign and domestic — a guaranteed $12 an hour plus an incentivized piece rate and housing,” Segale explains.
Segale says the strikes have slowed down the harvest, and the company is willing to talk with the labor group.
According to Guillen, the workers want a contract that guarantees some job security for future harvests, a plan for pay increases and the reinstatement of labor organizer Ramon Torres.
Segale said Torres’ firing is due to his recent arrest for domestic violence at the labor camp, not his actions as a labor leader, and his rehiring is not up for negotiation.
The striking workers have also launched consumer boycotts in Seattle stores, including Haagen-Dazs, Uwajimaya and the Ballard Market.
Sakuma’s late-season blackberry and blueberry harvest is expected to continue through October.