Worker’s Rights Committee at Sakuma Brothers Farm ends work stoppage, continues to struggle for dignity

Ripe Strawberries, no pickers. Photo by Tomás Madrigal.

Burlington, WA – July 15, 2013. These fields would go to waste if there are no pickers. According to Richard Sakuma, “We can grow the best crop there is, but if we don’t have the people to harvest, we’re pretty well sunk”(Holmes 57).

Understanding this double bind, the Worker’s Rights Committee agreed to return to the fields on July 16, 2013 after a six day work stoppage. The President of Sakuma Brothers Farms, Steven Sakuma, offered to pay the pickers $3.75 per flat instead of .30 cents per pound. The workers were not thrilled, because it was still a low piece rate, but explained that with this rate, “el trabajo es mas calmado,” that the pace of work was not as difficult to keep up, referring to the speed up that .30 cents per pound resulted in with the particular strawberry field in question.

As part of this agreement, the committee was able to negotiate a change in the process under which future piece rates are determined, by allowing three pickers of varying abilities selected by the committee to join the head supervisor on the field test which determines piece rate for a particular field the day before it is to be picked. These three workers are to be paid the state minimum wage for a one hour test run and based upon their production a piece rate will be established by their supervisor. The pickers will then have the ability to discuss the piece rate and have the option to opt out of picking a particular field without reprisal if they believe the piece rate is too low. Steve Sakuma agreed to draw up the process in writing and to have the policy posted at the labor camps for future migrant workers who may not have been present during negotiations.

In a honorable manner, the workers committee refused an initial offer of a full day’s work for 100 people based upon the partially completed field. Instead, they negotiated for a partial day’s work for all 200 workers they were representing.

In 2004, when family members and elders of some of the current pickers had a work stoppage around very similar concerns, Richard Sakuma had explained that his goals in relation to the farmworkers was to be, “fair and consistent.”(58) Steve Sakuma’s younger brother admitted that without the fair treatment of farmworkers, their farm would not be able to survive. It is clear from the flow of the negotiations that the Sakuma executives understand that their future success is bound with these farmworkers, as opposed to vertical integration or mechanization.

Mechanized blueberry picker. Photo by Tomás Madrigal.

The Limits of Industrialized Agriculture

Industrialized Agriculture in the United States has not been able to reach the level of production of Industry because it is limited by specific needs based upon the seasonal nature of production in agriculture, differences in the nutrient quality of the land, access to water, the inability to mechanize many of the highly perishable and lucrative crops that has resulted in the dependence upon a flexible, seasonal, highly skilled agricultural laborforce that must be activated in large quantities for temporary periods that is willing to work for lower wages than industry.

The limits of industrialized agriculture is a structural problem which has historically produced a wide variety of organizational experiments that attempt to meet the seasonal demand for labor, stabilize the workforce, establish control over workers and successfully reproduce a future work force. These have included latifundia surrounded by peasant farmers in Europe (Kautsky 1988 [1899]); haciendas and plantations articulated to Indigenous/peasant communities in the Americas (Wolf and Mintz 1957; Katz 1974); the slave-based plantation-economy of the U.S. south (Goldsmidt 1947; McWilliams 1949; Taylor 1954); the articulation of peasant-workers into the capitalist economy as transnational seasonal migrant farm workers (Griffith and Kissam 1995; Krissman 1996; Meillassoux 1975; Á. Palerm 1980; and J.V. Palerm and Urquiola 1993) or as guest workers (Galarza 1964 and Gamboa 1990), and the stabilization of a marginalized and vulnerable working poor via barrios, colonias and company towns (Alamillo 2006; Camarillo 1979; Garcia 2001; Grandin 2009; and J.V. Palerm 1991, 1998, 2000).

Often these experiments in addressing the limits of capitalist agriculture have been administered or sanctioned via public policy (Fisher 1953; Galarza 1964; Goldschmidt 1947). One of the ways that U.S. policy has helped industrialized agriculture in California to harness the labor-power of seasonal agricultural workers at a low cost has been to maintain a continual shift in the ethnic make up of the entire labor force at moments of economic crisis (Fisher 1953; Goldsmidt 1947; McWilliams 1939; Zaragoza 2007). This has allowed large agricultural firms in the U.S. to externalize the cost of the reproduction of labor-power in two ways: 1) by keeping local workers in marginalized communities via unstructured labor markets such as Colonias that supply a pool of available labor for surrounding agricultural enterprises (Fisher 1953; Kautsky (1988) [1899]; J.V. Palerm 1991, 1998, 2000) and 2) by depending upon foreign labor-power that is imported directly via contract and indirectly via informal social networking. This labor power is often reproduced via non-capitalist modes of production in foreign domestic spheres (Kautsky (1988) [1899]; Meillassoux 1975; Á. Palerm 1980; J.V. Palerm and Urquiola 1993). These shifts were managed in the U.S. by public policy through the formalization of harvest labor markets during moments of crisis and through their deregulation during periods of economic prosperity, producing an informal harvest labor market (Fisher 1953).

The Bracero Program

The most recent and well-documented formalization of the harvest labor market took place through what was known as the bracero program. Created in 1942 via wartime agreements between the United States and Mexico the bracero program was continued via the passage of Public Law 78 after World War II (Galarza 1964; Gamboa 1990; García y Griego 1980). This particular formalization of the U.S. harvest labor market solidified a culture of migration from rural Mexican campesino households and U.S. agricultural firms came to prefer Mexican-origin labor (J.V. Palerm, 1991; J.V. Palerm and Urquiola, 1993). Not all agricultural firms were able to benefit from this formal contract labor market, this solution to the limits of capitalist agriculture privileges large and mostly corporate agricultural firms, mainly in California. From 1943 to 1947, in remote locations in the states of Washington, Idaho and Oregon there were a considerable amount of strikes led by Mexican braceros over wages and food services (Gamboa, 77). One of these strikes occurred in Burlington, WA over the practice of paying higher wages to anglo workers in 1943 (Gamboa, 80). Because of a history of these types of work stoppages and federal intervention on wage standards, most farmers in Washington stopped depending upon Braceros after 1947, opting instead to return to the informal labor market made up of labor from the U.S. south, in particular Texas and the Dust Bowl region. The entire nation returned to an informal labor market after the formal end of the Bracero program in 1964.

The current U.S. Immigration Bill, S 744 if passed would return the United States to a formal labor market in agriculture. The bill would increase the amount of guest workers available to agricultural firms and extend the program to the high-tech and service industries. Of particular interest in this bill is the creation of a migrant visa for agricultural guest workers. If passed, this bill would likely create similar problems such as those that occurred during the Bracero program, and would create new problems and competition for migrant farm workers. This bill in a nutshell, would offer U.S. jobs to foreign nationals within the United States.

It is within this context that American farmers looked to mechanization as a possible solution, though even with the most advance technology, human skill and coordination still outperforms mechanical quantity. For over a hundred years, this has been the pipe dream of American Industrial farmers, there are simply too many variables in agriculture to become fully mechanized and vertical integration simply takes the family out of farming and into agribusiness.

The direct negotiations taking place at Sakuma Brothers Farm are unique and historical, it is unheard of farmworkers gaining any type of remedies. When farmworkers and growers work together, and change the process to include as opposed to exclude collaboration, the possibilities are endless.

The future that is being forged through this act of worker autonomy is in line with what Whatcom County Farmworkers have been struggling for over the past several months, a struggle towards cooperative farming, domestic fair trade, and a solidarity economy. Dignity.

Sakuma Worker’s Rights Committee. Photo by Tomás Madrigal.

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