Burlington, WA – It starts with a whistle, that ruptures the relative quiet of working as fast as you can, on your knees, back bent over, searching for the tiny ripe strawberries that stain your hands, trying to make the minimum weight. The whistle is answered, meaning someone else agrees with the original whistles discontent, and soon a chorus erupts in resounding symphony of agreement and workers walk off the field en masse. This was how one of the first Triqui sitdown strikes occurred in the region the mid 2000s, as described by anthropologist Seth M. Holmes in his book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2013) that exposes the plight of migrant Triqui farmworkers. This strike ended with a memo agreed upon by the farm’s executives, that addressed grievances about racism in the fields, by creating a company policy against intimidation and violence in the workplace. The agreement also resulted in slightly higher pay and allowed lunch breaks for pickers, these gains were silently rescinded a year later.
On Thursday, July 11, 2013 a little over 200 farmworkers walked off the fields at Sakuma Brothers Farms (http://sakumabros.com) in Burlington, WA. Triqui and Mixteco strawberry pickers and their families organized the strike. Farmworkers met with Ryan Sakuma, a crop manager and several foremen shortly after 2:00pm. Meeting for just over an hour, the farmworkers voiced their grievances to Ryan Sakuma over the unfair contract wage (30 cents/lb) for berries compared to California (70 cents/lb), the unjust firing of Lopez, and the undignified mistreatment they receive at the hands of the foremen in the fields and at their labor camps.
Triqui and Mixteco Farmworkers on the way to meet with Steve Sakuma. Photo by Tomás Madrigal
This strike occurred because of events that transpired on July 10, 2013 when Federico Lopez was fired for organizing other pickers to strike.
Federico Lopez listens to his foreman accuse him of intimidating workers. Photo by Tomás Madrigal
Grower Ryan Sakuma, hearing about the incident second hand from his foreman “El Güero,” interpreted Lopez’ labor organizing as an act of intimidation against other pickers, and cited the Sakuma Brothers Farm company policy against “intimidation, threats and violence in the workplace.” Sakuma apologized if he was mistaken, but he said he had to stand firm with company policy.
Rosalinda Guillen and Angelica Villa Translate. Photo by Tomás Madrigal
Rosalinda Guillen and Angelica Villa from Community to Community Development (http://foodjustice.org) were on hand to serve as impromptu mediators and translators for the striking farmworkers. When she translated what Ryan Sakuma had explained, the farmworkers and their families said that nobody had intimidated them and that on the contrary they had felt intimidated by the foremen.
Grower Ryan Sakuma explains why he fired Federico Lopez. Photo by Tomás Madrigal
The reason that Federico Lopez was organizing in the first place was that many of the farmworkers were upset with their production contract of .30 cents per pound because it was making it difficult for most pickers to meet the minimum weight which could lead to their dismissal.
One farmworker said that many pickers were only making $45 to $53 a day. Washington State’s minimum wage is $9.19 per hour, or $73.52 a day. She explained that they were also worried about being evicted from the labor camps because the minimum weight of 246 lbs per day based on an 8 hour day was too difficult to meet. Farmworkers of course work way more than an 8 hour day, the same picker explained that the strawberry field they were currently working was sparse and that the berries were small, this meant that they had to work extra fast, and that the foremen and checkers would yell at them because they had debris in the bins, and would consistently undercount the weight of each 30 pound bin they would check.
This experience corresponds with what was documented by Seth M. Holmes in the early 2000s when he was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Burlington. Holmes argued, “The white checkers are given power over how many pounds are marked for the pickers, and I observed more often than not that checkers marked less weight on the cards than the scale displayed”(Holmes 70). The picker I was speaking to in Spanish was a young Triqui mother, her daughter hugging on her leg as we spoke, she was adamant that she also had grievances of her own and wanted them heard. Expressing frustration with the patriarchal structure of the farm’s hierarchy.
Holmes maps out the class, ethnic and racial hierarchical structure of a Skagit Valley berry farm in his long term in situ ethnographic study. His findings demonstrate that Triqui and Mixteco migrant farmworkers are on the very bottom rung when it comes to respect, earnings and working conditions. Adding gender and age to the hierarchy, you can imagine just how difficult it is for a young Triqui single mother to work at Sakuma Brothers Farm.
Farmworker women at a Sakuma Labor Camp. Photo by Edgar Franks
She later sought me out to explain to me that there was also preferential treatment by the farm managers as far as who got to pick the better fields or work at hourly positions like checkers. One such person was José, a mestizo foreman, this farmworker accused Jose’s wife of being verbally abusive to workers when she worked as a checker, and she also accused José of favoritism when it came to allocating fields, his wife and her crew always got preference for fields that were easy to pick.
Sakuma Foreman being confronted by farmworkers. Photo by Tomás Madrigal
Another Sakuma Foreman was confronted by the farmworkers for yelling at them, for treating them like children. One foreman was even mentioned by name, Antonio Lopez, in the list of demands as a foreman that the pickers wanted to have fired or removed.
The list of demands asks for no retaliation against Federico Lopez who is accused by Sakuma foreman Antonio Lopez of intimidating other farmworkers according to Marcelino Raymundo-Amenazo, in order to strike. The workers demand a raise in piece rate wage from .30 cents to .70 cents, to eliminate the new scanner technology from the fields, to use physical tickets instead, that workers not be intimidated in the workplace, that the foreman Antonio Lopez be removed as a manager, better treatment for workers in regards to respect, clean living space, better housing, no yelling or threats by those above, to have sick leave, not to be harassed at home early in the morning to go to work, not to require professional verification in order to miss work because of illness, to not be disrespectful to workers, for managers not to intimidate workers, that workers fired for striking be reimbursed for their transportation costs as migrant farm workers, workers demand to know why Sakuma only asked for guest workers for the blueberries and not for strawberries (harder work) if there really is a labor shortage, pickers want to be paid overtime, resolution regarding problems with Child Care.
The farmworkers have met with representatives from the Northwest Justice Project who have organized their labor claims, and are set to demonstrate on July 12, 2013 at a Washington State legislative shindig in Everett, WA. Ryan Sakuma stated that no one will be working on his farm until Monday July 15, 2013. Negotiations are set to take place with 11 elected community representatives made up of men and women from the Triqui community, we will know by the end of today July 12, 2013 if Federico Lopez will be officially fired.
To support this labor struggle you can get the word out, join a consumer boycott against Haägen-Dazs strawberry ice cream and any other strawberry dairy product that uses Sakuma Brothers Farms Northwest Variety strawberries.
To join the solidarity efforts on the ground or to support this work financially you can contact Community to Community Development at 360-381-0293 or 360-756-2330 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, for updates visit our website at http://foodjustice.org and look for us on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Community2Community