Driscoll’s Notorious Track Record on Labor and the Sakuma Berry Boycott

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WWU Boycott Rally 2014, Photo by James Leder

Driscoll’s is no novice when it comes to fighting against farm worker campaigns for worker rights and dignity. In a 2011 dissertation titled, Places in Production: Nature, Farm Work and Farm Worker Resistance in U.S. and Mexican Strawberry Growing Regions by Marcos F. Lopez of UC Santa Cruz, Lopez documented very similar mistreatment, onerous piece rates and deplorable working conditions for Triqui and Mixteco Farm Workers in Baja California where Driscoll’s had begun production in 2004 in order to move production away from Oxnard, California where farmworkers were becoming more organized. It appears that Driscoll’s has since moved even further south into central Mexico to source its berries due to successful labor organizing in Baja California.

In Baja California, Mexico Lopez observed that the firm similar to it’s U.S. operations, emphasized mass and uniform production, “while remaining lax with the management strategies subcontracted firms use to organize work”(Lopez, 110). A strategy that allowed the multi-national firm to deny any claims of wrongdoing when it came to exploitative labor practices.

Lopez also observed that Driscoll’s also sought to change the culture of work by Triqui and Mixteco farm workers in San Quintin to encourage “firm loyalty” because farm workers would move between growers depending upon who was offering the better piece rates. The tactics of the firms were often more centered around threats than incentives as described below.

These partner firms with Driscoll’s used coercive and manipulative measures to exert control over their labor force. Labor pool manipulation included hiring too many workers in order to keep the price of labor low when fields were ripening, to massive layoffs during the peak season in order to avoid paying bonuses for high production by the farm workers. Coercive work conditions included indirect intimidation by the presence of off-duty police officers to “immediately detain farm workers who they deem defiant and unruly” who were taken to a nearby jail by the Mestizo police officers who were known for their racist treatment of indigenous people (114).

Working conditions at Driscoll’s berry contractors in Baja California were similar to the conditions described by farm workers at Sakuma Bros Farm in Burlington, WA during the strikes of 2013. Lopez reported that a Triqui farm worker said,

They make us work literally from sun up to sundown. They have us working up to 14 hour days. We get no breaks and they yell at us if we slow down, or stand up to long. The mayordomos (foremen) barely give us a few minutes to eat our lunch, before they hurry us back to work. They also say horrible things to us, like, “You lazy bastards! Hurry up or you’re out of here! (118)

Familias Unidas por la Justicia farm workers had similar wage and hour complaints against Sakuma Bros. Farms (a Driscoll’s subcontractor) which led to a class action lawsuit that resulted in the largest settlement of its kind in history at $850,000 and promises by the company to keep accurate employment records, abide by state regulations requiring a paid 10-minute break every four hours worked, and a 30 minute lunch break.

The study also examined Driscoll’s strawberry production in Santa Cruz County (Watsonville and Salinas) in California in 2008. Driscoll’s however had been fighting against worker organized campaigns since 1996 when the AFL-CIO and the UFW launched the National Strawberry Commission for Worker Rights (NSCWR) which targeted the “deplorable working conditions” and lack of worker safety (“acute pesticide exposure”) and “poverty wages” at many of Driscoll’s subcontractors.

UW Special Collections, Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Collection
UW Special Collections, Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Collection

Most of the campaigns were defeated by corporations like Driscoll’s, who capitalized upon the existing racial divisions within the farm labor force which made organizing farm workers extremely difficult. All the corporations had to do was to raise wages temporarily during the organizing campaigns, and pacified farm workers would claim, “we were able to earn a good wage in strawberries. We knew how to organize ourselves” (135). The UFW also had not calculated the damage that earlier anti-immigrant tactics in California during the 1960s against the farm workers from Michoacan and Jalisco would come back like Cesár’s ghost to haunt them. The increased number of well disciplined and organized indigenous farm workers from Oaxaca who began to migrate in greater numbers after the imposition of NAFTA in 1994 added another layer that organizers were only just beginning to understand and whose leadership may breath new life to a once dying unionism.

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UW Special Collections, Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Collection

One campaign by the UFW was victorious, it was against Coastal Berry Co. which was later bought out by Dole Berry, but bittersweet. The corporations strategy of pitting different ethnic groups of farm workers against others paid off in a violent altercation in Watsonville. Though the illegal activity led to securing a union contract, the damage to the community of farm workers had been accomplished by the growers, making it difficult to organize any further contracts through the UFW.

UW Special Collections, Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Collection
UW Special Collections, Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Collection

Part of this difficulty had to do with the rise of Mexican owned subcontracting strawberry farms made possible by the re-introduction of sharecropping in the California strawberry industry in the 1980s. The UFW quickly found out that hometown loyalties of Mexican farmworker communities were stronger bonds than they had imagined.

It is also important to mention that anti-indigenous racism within the Mexican farmworker community was strategically used by the growers in California to pit the Mestizo farmworkers against the UFW union and it’s emerging indigenous leadership.

Meanwhile, displaced indigenous subsistence farmers from Oaxaca, having had a familiarity with a strong history of labor unionism in their state, began to use, according to Lopez, the UFW structure as a vehicle to support their collective power.

Wheeling from the recent death of Cesár Chavez in the early 1990s, coupled with a professional campaign driven union that had strayed from the bottom up long-term organizing that had made it strong, the UFW had met it’s match in the Driscoll’s fields of Watsonville and Salinas. The farmworker union, constricted by bureaucratic regulations, would never again be as powerful as it was in the 1960s.

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Raul Calvo and Mario Vargas Center, Photo by Tomas Alberto Madrigal

Two of the Anti-Union consultants hired by Sakuma Bros Farms, Raul Calvo and Mario Vargas, broke their teeth in the midst of these struggles in Salinas where their consulting firms are based. Most of the tactics they use to disorganize farm workers at Sakuma Bros. Farms were first tested in the fields of the Santa Cruz Valley and revolved around pitting one group of workers against another.

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Sakuma Bros Farms Executives, Counsel and “Food Defense and Safety” team, Photo by James Leder

Another Anti-Union security consultant, Rhett Searcy was accused of using excessive force against an unarmed labor organizer in a labor dispute in 2013, at Montalvo Farms in Ventura County. The farm bears the namesake of one of the strawberry varieties that Driscoll’s patented. An avid Republican, Searcy and his brother Ryan, an anti-immigrant conservative and white supremacist militia supporter had threatened the use of force against the members Familias Unidas por la Justicia in a Skagit County Sheriff dispatch call. The call was admitted into evidence by a Skagit County Superior Court judge during the hearing regarding the most recently granted injunction against Sakuma Bros. Farms for their use of the security consultants, rebranded as “Food Defense and Safety” officers, to interfere with protected concerted activities and the violation of the farm workers tenant rights at the labor camp.

These disparities were not constructed overnight. Farmworkers included in their original demands for the farm to intervene in the racialized harassment and mistreatment that the mostly indigenous farmworkers experienced at the hands of mestizo foremen.

Seth Holmes documented that the same kind of racial heirarchies and coercion that Lopez had found the Driscoll’s subcontractors using against workers were already in place at Sakuma Bros. Farms as far back as 2004. Lopez went as far as to argue that these hierarchies were intrinsic to the organization of production. Holmes believed that the racial hierarchies derived solely as a bi-product of Mexican culture, a misinterpretation that the Sakuma public relations consultant, John Segale of Precision Public Relations would cite and invite Holmes to confirm in early news media campaigns in support of what Skagit County Superior Court found to be illegal labor practices at Sakuma Bros. Farm.

The entire agricultural industry has parroted this opportunistic and at its core racist supposition that farm workers are responsible for the poor working conditions that they experience at their place of employment. Spokesmen of the Washington Farm Bureau, Washington Farm Labor Association and Washington Grower’s League have argued on multiple platforms, that it is Mexican culture, not the organization of production on the farms, that produces exploitative working conditions.

Luckily for the farm workers, that weak and racist excuse is not a valid defense in the court of law when it comes to workplace safety, which is the sole responsibility of the employer according to federal and state legislation.

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