Federico Lopez and his family in front of their cabin. Photo by Star Murray.
BURLINGTON, WA – A farmworker strike committee met with Ryan Sakuma today for negotiations leading the first victory of the labor dispute, Federico Lopez was reinstated.
Lopez and his family are from the Triqui language community of San Martin Itunyoso, in Oaxaca in South Western Mexico, just south of the Mixteco region. Here he attended public school all the way through high school which has made him fluently bilingual in Spanish and Triqui languages.
San Martin Itunyoso, Oaxaca. Photo by Center for Latin American Studies, UC Berkeley.
On Friday, July 12, 2013 I had a chance to interview Federico Lopez near his home in Burlington, WA. He is a new father, and devoted husband, Lopez met his wife in California while he was working pruning table grapes in the Central Valley. After meeting his wife, Lopez began to migrate to Burlington, WA and has worked at Sakuma Brothers Farm as a berry picker for two years. He makes about $6,000 over four months of berry picking and migrates to start the pruning season in California around December. His wife also works alongside him.
Lopez has never been a part of a work stoppage before, but he was adamant that the reason he had to speak up is because his wife had a grievance with Sakuma farms for the past six years she has worked for the company. Her checks always come out smaller than his, sometimes as low as $200 a week, even though they had worked over 40 hours. He claimed that they were both tired of systematically being cheated out of pounds here and there because they add up. He is on strike because he would like to have his wife and other farmworker’s grievances for back wages settled because he believes that have been stolen via this type of systematic miscalculation brought about by technological advancements and standardization.
Seth M. Holmes, in his recently published monograph Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2013) documented the systemic miscalculation of berry bins by mostly anglo, teenage checkers in the Skagit Valley (68-71).
The Sakuma Brothers farm is the largest of its kind in Skagit County, a vertically integrated industrialized agricultural farm employing upwards of 800 workers during peak season with business offices in California and Washington.
Because of this wealth, Sakuma Brothers Farms has been able to employ the most advance technology available for mechanized harvesting and also for electronic inventory management via the introduction of magnetized worker identification cards and scale scanners operated by Checkers. This technology comes with its negatives and positives, for the farmer it is a way to standardize production, for the farmworker it is a way to take the pace of production and autonomy away from the pickers.
Threats of bringing in the mechanized harvester have been used to squash worker grievances, or as happened on Thursday, to argue that the growers are “good people” because they allowed the workers to harvest and earn money instead of using the more “efficient” machines on a particular field. The workers, however, were not phased by the machines, knowing that quantity does not top the quality picking that they are able to do.
The recent introduction of scale scanners and worker id cards makes it difficult for workers to keep track of their production and earnings. The record keeping aspect of their picking is computerized and held in the hands of the checkers and the Sakuma Brothers Farm. The workers have explained that the machine maxes out at 30 pounds per bin, if they pick more than 30 pounds, they are cheated out of 1-5 pounds of produce, systematically, which little by little adds up.
What the farmworkers understand as wage theft has been described by some supervisors as “pickers…trying to ‘get away with’ more berries per bucket because they were ‘lazy’”(70). Even the growers have described these hard working indigenous families in such derogatory ways, accusing them of being “drunks” with “violent” tendencies. Holmes in his early 2000s ethnographic study in the region debunked this stereotype, which he argued “serves to legitimate the ethnic-citizenship hierarchy on the farm as well as the racist treatment the migrant farmworkers receive”(98).
The farmworker strike committee is trying to meet with Ryan Sakuma tomorrow, Saturday July 13, 2013 to negotiate the contract wage from 30 cents to 70 cents a pound. They want to negotiate that rate before they go back to work, possibly as soon as Sunday.
Poster by Interfaith Worker Justice Center in Illinois.
To support the strike please spread the word, the solidarity community of consumers is boycotting Northwest Variety Strawberries produced by Sakuma Brothers Farms found in Haägen-Dazs strawberry ice cream and other creamy desserts. We haven’t yet established a strike fund, but Community to Community Development (http://foodjustice.org/) has been spending funds to support the strike, if you would like to contribute, please donate online or send a check allocated to the Sakuma Strike Fund and we will make sure it gets to the workers.
Solidaridad con los Campesinos Triqui y Mixtecos de Burlington!