Pickers Strike in Sakuma Bros Berry Fields, gain wage victories

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Blackberry Supervisor calling Ryan Sakuma to the fields to negotiate with workers who stopped picking. Photo by Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Burlington, WA-September 11, 2013–Familias Unidas por la Justicia held two strikes this week, resulting in wage increases at Sakuma Bros. Farms for over 350 workers that they democratically represent.

On Tuesday September 10, over 150 blueberry pickers under the leadership of Familias Unidas por la Justicia committee members Francisco Eugenio Paz, Francisco Martinez and Librado Ibañez halted production in the blueberry fields and demanded a raise in price per box of cannery bound blueberries from $4.50 a box to $6.00 a box. The work stoppage lasted for one hour, after which they gained a $1.00 wage increase to $5.50 a box of blueberries.

Today, Wednesday Sept. 11, 2013 at 8:00am, Over 200 blackberry pickers under the leadership of Familias Unidas por la Justicia President Ramon Torres also stopped production in the blackberry fields to demand a better price per fresh market box of blackberries. The supervisor had announced a price of $4.25 a box – the workers demanded $6 a box and negotiated with Ryan Sakuma a final price of $5.00 per box.

A HISTORY OF SIT DOWN STIKES

In Industrial Production

The sit down strike is a labor tactic where workers take control of the place of production by “sitting down” and stopping work on site. This differs from the traditional “walk out” strike tactic in that staying at the place of production prevents the employer from replacing them or resuming production by other means (other workers or a machine harvester).

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Strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher body plant number three. Photo by Sheldon Dick (1937).

Sit down strikes have a long history in the United States and are most easily associated with the United Auto Workers Flint Sit Down Strike in Michigan that lasted forty days in 1936-1937. The first recognized industrial sit down strike in the United States occurred on December 10, 1906 where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led 3000 workers to stop work at General Electric Works in New York. Since then, Sit Down strikes have been the realm of autonomist worker movements in Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia and France.

In The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was made possible by disperse and multiple sit down strikes, that together formed part of a nationwide general strike, that brought the nations production to a halt. The shop floor democracy of the workers councils, that formed the Central Worker’s Council of Greater Budapest was forged in local factory committees (James, Lee & Chaulieu, 1974, 7-19).

In the late 20th and early 21st century, the sit down strike tactic was used numerous and uncountable times by Mexican Maquiladora workers, Devon Peña documented the strategy in his book The Terror of the Machine (1997).

In Reproductive Spaces

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The Greensboro Sit-Ins Feb. 2, 1960. Photo by Greensboro News Record.

In the 1960s, student and civil rights movements also began to use the tactic in the form of “sit ins” and “teach ins” effectively moving the tactic out of the arena of production and into consumer and reproductive spaces.

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Wages for Housework c.1975. Designed by B. Warrior.

By the 1970s Wages for Housework campaign in the U.K. and Italy, the sit down strike was used en masse by housewives and working women to fight against the double shift and against unwaged labor.

In Agricultural Production

Historically speaking, the sit down strike was a key form of resistance to Slavery in plantation agriculture in the 17th and 18th century. Indentured servants and African slaves brought to the United States engaged in sit down strikes, acts of sabotage, ran away and saw through many uprisings. This type of rebellion was so common that plantation owners had to develop brutal and inhumane ways of disciplining slaves, as depicted in the Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a slave that is based upon a speech delivered in Virginia in 1712.

According to Paul Taylor, by the middle of the 18th century the crisis in U.S. plantation agriculture caused by the frequency of slave rebellions came to be so great that, “southern planters were obliged to seek another labor system” (Taylor, 1954, 143). As they were “denied the right of holding slaves,” because of the results of the civil war and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “they [Plantation owners] turned quickly to…sharecropping and wage labor” (Ibid). Even so, the tactic remained valuable as it found new life in industrial production in the early 20th century.

In 20th century industrial agriculture, Mexican farm workers have engaged in sit down strikes more often than traditional “walk out” strikes. 1917 was a busy year for Mexican farmworkers in California with “several farm strikes…hit the Corona, Riverside, Colton, Redlands and San Bernadino areas of California”(Acuña 171). According to Ernesto Galarza (1964) a 1928 a strike led by Mexican farmworkers in the Imperial Valley California, “was defeated by arrests and deportations”(39; Acuña 196-97). A 1930 strike in the Imperial Valley was broken when the Sheriff conducted raids and arrested 103 farmworkers and eight union leaders sentenced to between 2-28 years each at San Quentin (Acuña 215). A 1933 cotton strike in California was “broken by organized violence”(Galarza 39). A 1936 strike in Orange County was put down by “Sheriffs deputies and special guards numbering more than 400”(Ibid).

Later in the mid 20th century, in 1943, Burlington was the site of one of many sit down strikes by Mexican Bracero’s in Washington State over wage ceilings and piece rates. Here, according to Erasmo Gamboa (1990), “a local Mexican American, with the help of a priest, convinced the braceros to halt work because farmers were paying higher wages to Anglos doing similar work”(80).

In the present era, Familias Unidas por la Justicia also in Burlington, reported that work stoppages are the only tactic they as pickers have been able to use effectively for short term gains for more than 10 years, though only two strikes were recognized by Sakuma Bros. Farms, one in 2004 and another in 2008, these strikes also resulted in temporary or no gains.

The farmworkers report that they have had spontaneous strikes at Sakuma Bros. Farms almost every year for over a decade. Many of those small worker uprisings resulted in the termination and eviction of the instigator, and the majority resulted in no gains. This pattern changed this year and it is the reason that Familias Unidas por la Justicia are asking for consumer support through a boycott to achieve what they have not been able to achieve over ten years of struggle.

THE STRUGGLE TO CONTROL PRODUCTION

One of the prerequisites of wage labour and one of the historic conditions for capital is free labour and the exchange of free labour against money, in order to reproduce money and to convert it into values, in order to be consumed by money, not as use value for enjoyment, but as value for money. Another prerequisite is the separation of free labour from the objective conditions of its realization—from the means and material of labour. This means above all that the worker must be separated from the land, which functions as his natural laboratory. This means the dissolution both of free petty landownership and of communal landed property…(Marx 2007 [1965], pg 67)

The class politics of abstract labor is the “struggle over capital’s attempts to shape abstract labor and working class efforts to gain autonomy from its reduction to labor power” (Peña, 1983, 188). The struggle for control over production is on the one hand a struggle over the value of an individual worker’s labor and on the other hand a refusal of the imposition of work (Marx, 1976; Cleaver, 1979).

It is also a struggle to reclaim land. Through the “separation of peasants from their land (their means of production)” that “is the most critical precondition for the development of capitalist production and the imposition of wage-labor exchange relations” (Peña, 1997, 29). Many U.S. migrant farm workers have been displaced from their land by U.S. trade policy such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Mexican National policy changes that undo land reform gains made in the early 20th century. That is the experience documented with the majority of Mixtec and Triqui-speaking farm workers I interviewed at Sakuma Bros. Farms and this is also supported by Seth Holmes findings in Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies(2013) regarding the experiences of Triqui farmworkers in the Skagit Valley.

On the packing house floor and in the fields this struggle for control over production takes specific forms including struggles over the speed of production, quality of production, wages, the length of shifts, the workday and work week (Marx, 1976; Cleaver, 1979; Peña, 1983). The majority of the demands that have not been met by Sakuma Bros. Farms are these types of “managerial” or “control over production” issues in regards to Berry production.

This struggle also extends to the struggle over how the workforce is reproduced. This manifests in struggles over water, land, housing, sanitation, childcare, education, leisure, culture, benefits, and over the value of unwaged labor and against the gendered division of labor (Dalla Costa and James, 1979).

The struggle in the sphere of reproduction is fought primarily over a capitalist imposed wage divide between waged and unwaged sectors of the working class (Cleaver, 1979, 70-71). This is why Familias Unidas por la Justicia have sought relief in regards to access to childcare, limits or compensation for “overtime” because of the time young children are left unsupervised or in the care of another person, sick leave and better sanitation and living conditions free of bed bugs in Sakuma Bros. Labor Camps.

CHANGING THE INDUSTRY FOR THE BETTER

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Committee Members celebrate victory. Photo by Rosalinda Guillen.

Similar to farmworker struggles in California in the 1960s, Familias Unidas por la Justicia are negotiating beyond small and temporary wage increases because they also want “to remedy the great power imbalance between growers and field-workers” by demanding “recognition plus participation in management” (Pulido, 1996, 71). Also similar to the 1965 farmworker struggle in California, they are in an ironic situation where they are not protected under federal labor laws, agricultural workers are exempted, and therefore they are also not subject to its limitations (70).

The pickers contend that these disruptions in otherwise peaceful and efficient work would not be happening if the management of Sakuma Berry farms would re-establish the joint test picking process that the company previously agreed upon with the organizing committee on July 25, 2013.

This is why the Sakuma Bros. Farms workers are demanding a written contract – to guarantee that all gains made for their families through Familias Unidas por la Justicia are respected and implemented without losing them at the whim of management.

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