The Costco Connection: Farmworkers bring Driscoll’s Boycott to Respected Washington Grocer


Bellingham, WA – Farmworker families in northwest Washington have brought their berry boycott to Costco Wholesale, a respected Washington grocer that purchases berries from Driscoll’s, global small-fruit supplier that sources berries from Sakuma Bros. Farms and from several farms in the San Quintin Valley in Baja California, Mexico where there are ongoing labor disputes over unfair wages and wage theft, mistreatment and sexual harassment in the workplace, and against the dependency upon child labor for production.

Photo by Anonymous
Photo by Anonymous

A small independent farmworker union called Familias Unidas por la Justicia began their boycott of Sakuma Bros. Farms berries in 2013, successfully forcing the firm to discontinue selling fresh market berries with under their own label. In 2014, after discovering that the firm had shifted production towards processed berries and began packing fresh market berries exclusively into Driscoll’s label cartons, the farmworker union began to focus their campaign on Driscoll’s because the wholesaler refused to meet the union’s demands, stating instead that they fully supported Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. and had not found any wrongdoing via their corporate audits of their supplier. A finding that the Skagit Valley Superior Court’s legal register disproves when it comes to the firm interfering with the farmworker’s right to engage in concerted activity, reprisals, their tenant rights, and the firm’s failure to follow Washington state’s legislation regarding paid rest breaks. Meanwhile, the farmworker union’s boycott campaign convinced five US cooperative grocers and the University of Washington to discontinue sourcing berries from Driscoll’s by early 2015.

On March 17, 2015 over 50,000 Mexican farmworkers organized a general strike in Baja California’s San Quintin Valley in the berry fields of Driscoll’s subsidiaries, BerryMex and MoraMex, Reiter Affiliated Companies along with several other fruit and vegetable growers in the region. As a result, J. Miles Reiter, the owner of the subsidiaries, stepped down as CEO of Driscoll’s on March 31, 2015 and was replaced by Kevin Murphy. The powerful strike immediately impacted the supply chain for all fresh market commodities in California on the U.S. side of the border.

On April 8, 2015 the emerging independent farmworker union named La Alianza de Organizaciones Nacionales, Estatales, y Municipales por la Justicia Social joined forces with Familias Unidas por la Justicia by announcing their endorsement of the Driscoll’s boycott and calling for it’s expansion to an international scale. Familias Unidas por la Justicia leadership had reached out in solidarity to the emerging union shortly after the strike because their extended family members who lived in the San Quintin Valley had participated in the strike and were reporting incidents of reprisals.

Photo by James Leder
Photo by James Leder

The Driscoll’s Boycott

The Driscoll’s Boycott Campaign began in 2014 when Familias Unidas por la Justicia farmworkers reported that Sakuma Bros. Farms had stopped packing fresh market berries into their company label and instead packed strawberries into blank and blueberries, blackberries and raspberries into Driscoll’s label cartons during the 2014 harvest. In August 2014, the Seattle boycott committees called upon consumers to ask Driscoll’s to intervene at Sakuma Bros. Farms by revoking their contract with Driscoll’s until the labor dispute was resolved. Driscoll’s representatives responded quickly, by saying that they fully supported Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. and had dedicated financial resources to the farm to meet its standards of production.

This led to a stronger campaign that resulted in six cooperative grocers at 7 locations discontinuing their contracts with Driscoll’s in Washington, Oregon, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The boycott was also endorsed in 2014 by 33 network organizations including the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO and all of its member unions and the Domestic Fair Trade Association that includes other farmworker organizations, grocers, and farmers across the United States.

After the March 17, 2015 general strike in the San Quintin Valley in Baja California, the Driscoll’s Boycott gained an international foothold as the boycott took root across Mexico, in Canada, in Chile because of the ongoing Port Strikes, and in more areas in the United States, most notably the entire West Coast because unions that were strong supporters of the farmworkers such as the ILWU were in the middle of a port slow down and US Refineries across the United states organized by USW were involved in strikes of their own when this general strike broke out in Baja California. Areas where Driscoll’s had claimed “victories” in the prior decade against farmworker organization drives by the UFW in places such as Watsonville and Salinas in 1996-98 and in Saticoy and Oxnard in 2012 joined the boycott with a fervor because the stakeholders there had experienced first hand the oppressive working conditions, wages, and practices that the boycott and strikes in Washington and San Quintin Valley called to end.

The crisis for Driscoll’s allowed for their corporate strategies of production based upon exploitation to be made visible as the multi-national corporation struggled to maintain control over production on multiple planes of struggle including but not limited to rising fuel costs (USW strikes), port shutdowns and slowdowns (ILWU & Chilean Port Workers strikes), farmworker strikes (UFW in Saticoy, CA (2012), FUJ in Burlington, WA (2013-present), and La Alianza in San Quintin (2015-present)), and a growing educated consumer base observing the boycott of their label (2014-15).

The Picket Lines

April 1, 2015: The Seattle Boycott committee holds a picket line at Fremont PCC.

Photo by Todo Poder al Pueblo
Photo by Todo Poder al Pueblo

April 4, 2015: Over 60 community members blockade the entrance of a Driscoll’s processing plant in Oxnard, CA the effort is led by local organizations including FIOB and Todo Poder al Pueblo.

April 8, 2015: The Seattle Boycott committee holds a picket line at Fremont PCC.

April 14, 2015: About 40 members of the M.E.Ch.A. national organization holds a picket line at a Chicago Costco Wholesale store.

Photo by Skagit/Whatcom IWW
Photo by Skagit/Whatcom IWW

April 18, 2015: The Skagit-Whatcom IWW boycott committee holds a picket line at Fairhaven Haggen.

April 22, 2015: The Seattle boycott committee holds a picket line at Fremont PCC.

April 29, 2015: The Seattle boycott committee holds a picket line at Fremont PCC.

Photo by James Leder

May 4, 2015: Over 200 people observe a picket line at Bellingham, Costco as part of the annual Farmworker Dignity March hosted by Community to Community Development and led by the membership of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

May 9, 2015: WWU Students for Farmworker Justice hold picket line at Bellingham Costco Wholesale store.

Photo by Anonymous
Photo by Anonymous

May 9, 2015: Farmworkers from Watsonville and Salinas and students from Sacramento State hold a demonstration inside the Safeway in Sacramento, California the state’s capitol.

May 9, 2015: Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) holds a press conference at the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate denouncing the brutal repression by the state police of 70 farmworkers for demanding back pay from their employer. One of the members of FIOB was shot and the farmworkers reported 3 deaths due to the anti-union violence that followed the raid that morning by corporate vigilante thugs.

Photo by Tomas Madrigal
Photo by Tomas Madrigal

May 12, 2015: Community to Community and Familias Unidas por la Justicia hold an accountability demonstration against the brutal repression of 70 San Quintin Valley farmworkers and the reported deaths of three farmworkers in ensuing anti-union violence at the Bellingham Costco Wholesale store.

May 15, 2015: Farmworkers from Salinas and Watsonville hold Boycott Picket line at Driscoll’s headquarters in Watsonville, CA.

May 16, 2015: Driscoll’s Boycott demonstration against the Oxnard Strawberry Festival observed by hundreds farmworkers, community members and local organizations including FIOB and Todo Poder al Pueblo.

Photo by Anonymous
Photo by Anonymous

May 18, 2015: Boycott Picket line held by farmworkers at Hillcrest Whole Foods in San Diego, CA

May 30, 2015: Boycott Picket line held by farmworkers, WWU students for Farmworker Justice, and Skagit/Whatcom IWW at Bellingham, Costco

Photo by Liisa Wale
Photo by Liisa Wale

June 14, 2015: Boycott Picket line held by farmworkers and the Skagit/Whatcom IWW at Bellingham Costco.

June 21, 2015: Boycott Picket line at Bellingham Costco by Students for Farmworker Justice

Photo by Colette Cosner.
Photo by Colette Cosner.

June 27, 2015: Boycott Picket line at San Jose Costco after the Food Sovereignty PMA in San Jose, California.

The Costco Connection

Fabulous Food The Costco Way (2014) a publication of Costco Connection highlights all of Costco’s suppliers including Driscoll’s (pg 230, 251). Also included in this list is Washington apple producer First Fruits Marketing (pg 98-99, 247). These warrant a closer look at the business of global marketing of fresh fruit to consumers by a closer examination of Costco and its relationship to Driscoll’s, Sakuma Bros Farms, and BerryMex a Reiter Affiliated Company, by examining Costco’s interesting business relationships with the CEO’s of Sakuma Bros Farms and Broetje Orchards.

On October 31, 2007, the Seattle Times declared blueberries Washington’s “Blue Gold” for reaping in over $30 million dollars in revenue. In this article they quoted Jim Sinegel, then president and CEO of Costco, who said

They sell like crazy, We buy them from every part of the country and every part of the world, and we can’t get enough of them. They would easily be the biggest item in our produce department if we had the ability to get what we need. ( Seattle Times: Washington’s Blueberry syndication)

In the same article, Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. owner Richard Sakuma was also interviewed and admitted that labor was a limit for expanded blueberry production in Washington even though the demand for the berry was very high, which he said “I don’t know where the limit is, so far, we don’t have enough”(Ibid) noting competition around the world but also in Eastern Washington was a cause of pressure upon the company to go beyond the then clear limits of production to sell to grocers like Costco. At the time the Sakuma Bros Farm relied upon 300 farmworkers to harvest 500 acres of blueberries, by 2013 the farm produced just over 2000 acres of berries and relied upon just over 500 farmworkers to bring in the harvest resulting in a doubling of the production quota per capita by the farmworkers who formed the independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

In August 2009, Jeff Lyons, the Senior Vice President of Costco, convinced his longtime friend and supplier, Ralph Broetje and his wife Cheryl Broetje to provide a rare interview for the Costco Connection, the grocer’s newsletter. The article acclaimed the $80 million dollar, 6,000 acre, vertically integrated company town agribusiness, its charity foundation and its owners as the pinnacle of holistic corporate social responsibility in Washington State. Absent from the article were the voices of any of the reported 3,800 farmworkers and packinghouse workers who produced apples and cherries for Costco at this modern day plantation in operation in southeastern Washington State. One that is the subject of an out of court settlement for $2.5 million to ICE (Wall Street Journal: Washington State Fruit Grower Hit with 2.25 million immigration fine).

The Costco Connection (2009) feature article stresses that the Broetje’s strive to “run a socially responsible business” that is “dedicated to cultivating their employees” where they produce a “quadruple bottom line: profit, people, planet and purpose” as “Marketplace Ministers”(25; 23). Whether or not they accomplish what they say is the topic of another research project. However, one admission printed in the industry newsletter stands out, a quote where Ralph Broetje says about Costco, “for years they’ve been one of our top partners. We have similar models of management and codes of conduct. We’re excited to be one of your suppliers”(25).

The Globalization of Production

University of Washington geographers Lucy Jarosz and Joan Qazi (2000) observed a trend of consolidation and vertical integration in the management of Washington state’s apple production and highlighted this firm where they had interviewed Mexican farmworkers, some who were engaged in an ongoing labor dispute over “wages, working conditions, and housing”(2). The geographers find,

As production costs, market value, production volumes, acreage and quality standards have increased in recent years, there has been a corresponding drop in the number of growers, orchards, and packinghouses. There has also been a move to family owned, vertically integrated agribusiness which control extensive orchard acreage. Nonfamily, corporate ownership controls less than 10% of the state’s total apple acreage. Increasingly, growers with large orchards, own and control packing sheds, and employ their own international marketing teams. For example, one 4000 acre family-owned operation employs nearly 1000 people and operates a packing facility with 55 CA storage rooms, has its own marketing staff and competes with Chilean and South African apple exporters. This operation was among the handful to ship the first Washington apples to Japan in 1994.(7)

Jarosz and Qazi (2000) argue that fresh apple production for the global market is both capital and labor intensive, and leads to the artificial creation of low paid labor pools that consist of “women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and migrants” and “Third World working conditions in one of the richest and most technologically sophisticated agricultural regions in the nation”(ibid; 2). These conditions became true for the two vertically integrated firms that produce globalized agricultural commodities in Washington for export, Sakuma Bros. Farms and Broetje Orchards.

Engaging the Contradictions

The stark contrast between the presentation of the same Costco supplier as a champion of social justice from the point of view of the growers interviewed by a journalist and as an exploitative enterprise bringing third world production into operation within the first world in order to compete in a global marketplace from the point of view of the farmworkers interviewed by a team of academics is at the very least jarring.

In the same vein, legislators with long standing relationships with both Costco, Broetje Orchards and Sakuma Brothers Farm, such as former governor Christine Gregoire (D), representative Dan Newhouse (R) and senator Maria Cantwell (D) have long lauded the entrepreneurs that helped shape their vision of globally competitive and powerful Washington export economy grounded by the three pillars of local production of agriculture, airplanes and software for the global export market. To this extent,

Since 2005, Gregoire has led trade missions to Australia, China, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan to help expand Washington’s $42 billion agriculture industry. As a result of her trade missions, Gregoire has had success eliminating some trade barriers and tariffs and opening more opportunities for Washington growers, producers and distributors… Accompanying Gregoire and Newhouse are Supervalu International President Charles Witzleben, Sakuma Brothers President and Co-Owner Steve Sakuma, Washington Grain Alliance Chief Executive Officer Tom Mick, Northwest Horticulture Council President Christian Schlect, Washington State Potato Commission Executive Director Chris Voight, and Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association Executive Director Keith Mathews. (The News Tribune: Gregoire, Newhouse lead trade mission to Washington, D.C.)

It is important to note that Sakuma Bros. Farms CEO Steve Sakuma is named, but what is not immediately identified is that Keith Mathews, the CEO of First Fruits Marketing which was established in 2009, is also identified. Mathews had previously worked as a grower lobbyist with Mike Gemplar and Linda North in 1993.

In September 2011, the USDA hosted a delegate tour of Washington global suppliers (exporters) that included agricultural minister-counselors attaches and economists from Mexico, China, Japan and representatives from Israel, Malaysia and Morocco. During this tour, CEO Steve Sakuma received a symbolic gift from Japanese minister Katsuhiro Saka at Sakuma Bros. Farms in Burlington, WA a symbol of their commitment to continue trading together (WSDA 2011 Annual Report, pg 8).

At the time of the early trans pacific trade negotiations, Christine Gregoire was the governor of Washington State, and Dan Newhouse was the director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Together they laid the trade groundwork for what would become known the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic policy plan that continues to be pushed by Dan Newhouse (R) who is now a congressman along with Senators Patty Murray (D) and Maria Cantwell (D) who were onboard with Christine Gregoire’s economic planning when she served as Governor. On April 22, 2015 Senator Maria Cantwell (D) voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership while Senator Patty Murray (D) broke with her party’s position on the TPP trade deal on May 7, 2015.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, according to the Obama administration, is a 21st Century trade agreement that seeks to provide market access for US goods and services exports and to regulate trade across the Asia Pacific Market Circuit (Trans-Pacific Partnership). It is the largest trade deal proposed since NAFTA and would create a trade zone that stretches 11 Pacific rim countries that is presently the domain of Driscoll’s wholesaler and First Fruits Marketing thanks to the late 20th century trans pacific trade negotiations and delegations of the above mentioned Washington legislators and entrepreneurs.

The Legacy of Global Marketing

Washington’s global marketing strategy of “pristine and tranquil orchards” full of docile and grateful workers, “cultivated” by charitable Christian patrons, “Marketplace Ministers” or legacy family farmers, hides the acute attention to detail of the industry’s psyto-sanitation requirements that make already difficult work an onerous affair both in the orchards, berry fields and in the packing sheds. As mentioned above, the demand for the product has led to vertical integration and more acres of production yet not so much of an increase in farm labor that has made growers have to compete for labor, while their production quotas have doubled as with the case of Sakuma Bros Farms between 2009 and 2013.

The supplier addendums imposed by corporations such as Costco for uniformity, food safety and quality control that are enforced by third party certifiers such as SCS Global Services, govern the pace of production on the farm regardless of whether it is in Washington state or Baja California these are requirements on top of whatever psyto-sanitary supplier requirements that a distributor like Driscoll’s may have their contractors follow.

The GLOBAL G.A.P. is a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) recognized standard (COSTCO GLOBAL G.A.P. Addendums). On top of these standards, the GLOBAL G.A.P also has Addendums specific to Costco that regulate the Facility (packinghouse workers), Growing Area (farmland), and Harvest Crew (farmworkers).

Processing plants are required to fulfill US Food and Drug Administration Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), “HACCP is a management system in which food safety is addressed through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product”(HACCP). The addendum also requires a minimum of one toilet for every 15 workers, supervisors must observe workers wash their hands, employees nails must be trimmed and no nail polish worn, jewelry, watches, bobby pins, and clothing with sequins is prohibited, hairnets and facial hair covers are required (Produce Audit Addendum)

For the Growing Area Costco requires a third party audit, records of certification for pesticide application, records of transport, and proof that there is no rodent contamination, along with treatment of water used on the crops (Costco produce audit Addendum).

For the Harvest Crew, Costco requires the supplier to have a risk assessment plan, latex gloves, new or clean harvest equipment, a written pest control program, quality control against pests with record of inspections, that all products be labeled, that packaging meet manufacturer requirements, a rigid cleaning and sanitization schedule of all harvest equipment, and a third party audit (Costco Harvest Crew Audit Addendum).

As trade expeditions to Japan resulted in the opening of the Japanese marketplace in 1994, Broetje Orchards, as reported by Jarosz and Qazi (2000) became one of the first firms to export apples to Japan. Mexican farmworkers in Eastern Washington went on strike over the strict Asian Market psyto-sanitation requirements that included on site handpacking into plastic bags, which greatly slowed down the speed of production in the orchards, making piece-rate wages onerous and unfair. There were two strikes at Broetje Orchards at this time, one in 1993 that resulted in a $1 raise from $9/box to $10/box with the instigators fired by owner Cheryl Broetje’s brother Joe Shelton and those who stayed were rewarded with a secondary raise to $12/box. The strike was observed by 300-400 apple pickers and lasted four days. 1994 was the strike over the new regulations and resulted in a $1 raise from $12/box to $13/box. Both strikes occurred in October when the workers were picking green apples, which have to be picked delicately because the apples bruise easily. One picker reported that the crews were threatened in the following way, “If you back the union, we will fire you” which was punctuated with the summary firing of 40 to 50 pickers in 1994 to break the UFW union organizing campaign.

At Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc., Driscoll’s psyto-sanitation requirements and on-site packing into Driscoll’s label cartons also led to yearly work stoppages by Mexican farmworkers who would demand a higher piece-rate wage and better treatment by the driving foremen urging them to speed up production in order to meet corporate production quotas. The first strike at Sakuma Bros. Farms was documented in 2004 by medical anthropologist Seth Holmes (2013), the work stoppage resulted in a small raise in the piece rate, and a company memo banning the use of intimidation in the workplace by the management. Holmes reported that the memo had lost its significance by the following harvest. Farmworkers reported another major strike in 2008 that resulted in no gains and several individuals (almost yearly) who had been fired on the spot between 2004 and 2013 for asking for an increase in the piece-rate or for better treatment by the management. On July 11, 2013 Federico Lopez was summarily fired and his family was evicted from the Sakuma Bros. labor camp for asking for an increase in the strawberry piece-rate. This was the first strike of seven in the 2013 harvest season that Familias Unidas por la Justicia would observe. The union promptly elected a 11 member negotiation committee and drafted a 14 point list of demands and began a series of good faith negotiations with Sakuma Bros Farms executives that lasted until August 4, 2013 when the company was able to secure 30 H2A guest workers. On August 14, 2013 Ryan Sakuma broke the written agreement between the union and firm to co-determine piece-rates and never returned to the negotiation table. It was at this point that the firm had decided to lawyer up and launch a strong anti-union campaign that relied heavily upon consultants recommended by Driscoll’s including Precision Public Relations, HR consultant Mario Vargas, Safety consultant Raul Calvo, and Security specialist Rhett Searcy and his brother Ryan Searcy (See: Driscoll’s Notorious track record on labor and the sakuma berry boycott). These anti-union consultants all gained their experience defending the corporate interests of Driscoll’s contractors in Salinas, Watsonville, and Ventura County.

The Persistence of Repression as Discipline

A major component of the general strike in San Quintin was that the farmworkers and their community supporters put up a blockade on the freeway a tactic developed in the capitol city of Oaxaca uprising against a corrupt state governor that occurred in 2006.

Indigenous migrant farmworkers in Mexico have been actively trying to organize themselves an independent farmworker union since 1963 in Sinaloa as the Central Campesina Independiente (CCI) the San Quintin Valley after changing its name in 1975 to Central Independiente de Obreros Agricolas y Campesinos (CIOAC) since at least the 1990s (Hubert C. de Gramont, Neoliberalismo y Organización Social en el Campo Mexicano (1996): 96). According to Michael Kearney (1998) the CIOAC was able to organize 40,000 Mixtec farmworkers in the 1990s “in the face of well orchestrated repression leveled by the combined forces of growers and the government at the state and federal level” Kearney continues, “The quasiorganized Mixtecs are embarrassing the state by repudiating any allegiance to the PRI and the CTM into which the grower-state alliance is attempting to incorporate them, with the immediate objective of breaking the CIOAC and defusing the labor conflict”(Michael Kearney, “Mixtec Political Consciousness: From Passive to Active Resistance” in Rural Revolt in Mexico, 1998, 141).

Marcos F. Lopez’s 2011 Doctoral Dissertation at UC Santa Cruz titled “Places in Production: Nature, Farm Work and Farm Worker Resistance in U.S. and Mexican Strawberry Growing Regions” finds during his research that took place in 2009 that in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California,

The repressive labor conditions that currently operate in the region have been active since the 1980s (Garduño, Garcia, and Moran 1989; Nagengast and Kearney 1990). What has changed is that organized indigenous labor is surprisingly no longer present in San Quintín at a time when migrant indigenous farm workers have begun to permanently resettle. Instead, the collective action that takes place in the region is centered on squatter rights and access to natural resources, such as water (147).

Lopez then proceeds to argue that farm workers in the San Quintín Valley did not move away from labor organizing, instead the local government and agricultural firms have repressed their ability to address those labor conditions which led the farmworkers to use alternate routes to contest inequalities in their neighborhoods shifting their strategy from taking on individual firms to engaging in a community-based approach that relies upon the indigenous political institutions known as usos y costumbres including asambleas, tequio and cargos (ibid).

This shift in organizing that has continued to be developed over the last 20 years in the San Quintín Valley did not stem the repression. While growers, such as Driscoll’s Subsidiary BerryMex became imbricated into the capitalist development mega-projects funded by the state of Baja California and the Mexican Federal government in the form of the construction of “more than 17 privately-owned water desalination plants used exclusively for agriculture in the San Quintín Valley”(101). According to the production manager at BerryMex at the time Lopez documented that Luis Huller reported, “It costs about $1/gallon to produce water that we can use for irrigation” adding, “agricultural firms operating in the San Quintín Valley would be unable to produce strawberries competitively if not for subsidies they receive from the Mexican state (102). Lopez reported that the state Agricultural secretariat told him “agricultural firms operating in the San Quintín Valley receive a subsidy equaling 50 percent of the construction costs, up to $750,000 [MP], or $60,000. In addition, the state provides firms a subsidy that lowers energy costs. The state [Baja California] pays firms $0.34 [MP], or $0.03, for each kilowatt consumed”(ibid)

Lopez argues that as a result of this water crisis, agricultural firms “act collectively to increase their flexibility within the local labor market” what this means is that “agricultural firms have successful [sic] been able to lobby and reinterpret labor laws that in the past reduced their ability to control the local labor market and limit their profits”(103). The agricultural firms accomplished this by creating “el Consejo Agrícola” to “pressure government officials to reverse, and even universally ignore, regulations that threaten revenues (Zlolinski 2010: 164)”(ibid). According to Lopez Consejo Agrícola’s “core members, representing the ten largest strawberry firms in the region, uniformly agree to ignore Mexican labor law in order to eliminate labor market competition amongst them. By doing so, firms openly refuse to pay state-mandated benefits, such as overtime, maternity leave and medical insurance, el seguro social”(ibid). These agribusiness practices Lopez concludes, “increases the precarious labor conditions and relations that farm workers in the valley encounter”(104). These include, Lopez finds, paying workers in cash to avoid contractual obligations, using human resource tactics to liquidate workers every week to avoid seniority requirements, and paying “Mexico’s minimum daily wage, $52.50 [MP], or $4.20. To make up the difference, firms liquefy their worker’s state mandated plan de retiro (state-sponsored pension and INFONAVIT (state-sponsored housing) benefits. As a result, firms use legal measures to carry out blatant wage theft and deny workers their right to establish seniority”(Ibid).

Lopez goes on to discuss how Driscoll’s contractor system allows for two firms to operate in one location. He finds that these firms operate on a system based upon internal and sub-contracted production, while each firm “maintain uniform quality control standards that rely on intra-firm knowledge exchange and internal regulations that allow them to export fresh strawberries to the U.S.”(105).

Lopez observes that,

Driscoll Berry utilizes a sister-firm, BerryMex, to carry out production in Mexico. BerryMex in Baja cultivates roughly 1000 acres of strawberries annually and is Driscoll’s primary source of production in the region. Separate from BerryMex, Driscoll Berry is more involved in their Baja production. Since Driscoll’s operations are relatively new in Baja, in the early 2000s they began using a small cohort of medium-scale sharecroppers, which they call share-growers. The use of share-growers helped Driscoll mediate risk and profit loss as they developed competence for growing strawberries in Baja. Only until recently did Driscoll decide to move away from their share-grower strategy and establish more permanent working relationships with sub-contracted Mexican-based growers in the region. (106)

Lopez observed that even those well off growers targeted by Driscoll’s as possible sub-contractors were skeptical of Driscoll’s organization of management and the psyto-sanitary requirements prior to export and the fees associated with being a sub-contractor for the firm.

Lopez writes that Driscoll’s began production in San Quintín Valley in 2004 after its Mexican subsidiary in Jojotepec, Jalisco convinced the company that it would be a profitable venture that would provide an alternative to the labor disputes the company was experiencing in Oxnard, California as the firm tried to introduce winter production (107). Lopez quotes Luis Huller, head of BerryMex’s Baja California operations as saying, “We were able to show the Reiter Brothers [Driscoll’s Board member] that growing strawberries in San Quintín was profitable and suitable for expansion”(108). Though these Mexican growers were reluctant to join Driscoll’s because of its stringent psyto-sanitary procedures, oversight and cost Baja California production came to produce 30 percent of Driscoll’s annual volume by 2009.

Regarding the treatment of farmworkers, Lopez observes that there are several different approaches to managing labor.

BerryMex, Driscoll’s sister firm, uses human resource strategies that attempt to professionalize and create a loyal indigenous farm worker base…the firm is attempting to create a professional farm worker capable of adhering to BerryMex’s strict human resource policies (110).

This strategy of professionalization is an attempt at changing the common practice of moving between firms based upon the higher piece-rates offered between firms by creating firm loyalty. To this extent, “BerryMex used concessions to maintain their seasonal workforce…BerryMex uses weekly bonuses to improve consistency. Workers who labor six days a week receive a $1 [MP] bonus for each 8 lb. tray they harvest. For the average BerryMex strawberry worker, the one peso bonus could earn them an addition $150 [MP], per week” the subsidiary also is one of the few that actually contribute to their worker’s seguro social, plan de retiro, and INFONAVIT which is regularly denied by the other growers in the region (111). Workers complain about having to work when their kids are out of school and for being disciplined via a warning system that results in constructive firing due to non-compliance with the company’s strict Human Relations regulations.

Contrary to the Driscoll’s subsidiary BerryMex, Lopez finds that,

Driscoll’s Mexican partner firms, such as Agrícola San Simon and Berry Veg de Baja, utilize the repressive labor politics common to the region. To enhance their labor control in the fields, these strawberry firms employ more workers than they need. Fearing that they would jeopardize their work and those in their cuadrilla (work crew), farm workers are reluctant to question labor conditions that jeopardize their health and safety, as well as keep them in dire poverty (113).

Farm workers reported being sprayed with pesticides while in the fields, and being layed off just before peak picking season in order to be denied a profit sharing bonus. The farm workers also reported indirect intimidation.

One farm worker explained,

‘Everyone keeps quite [sic] not because they are afraid of loosing [sic] their job, but because they are afraid of being thrown in jail.’ He explained that the firm keeps an on-duty police officer to help maintain order in the fields. Informants reported that Berry Veg de Baja’s management keeps a police officer on site to immediately detain farm workers who they deem defiant and unruly. Farm workers who are arrested are taken to the nearest jail in the town of Camalú (114).

Oddly enough, the same organization of work has been documented at U.S. based production sites in California and Washington state, these are also the very type of repression that striking workers in San Quintin faced by state police on the morning of May 9, 2015 when 70 farm worker men, women and children were brutalized in order to put down a rebellion over back pay that the grower did not want to pay in retaliation for the worker’s observation of the strikes. In the violence that followed the raid, a member of Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) was shot and three farm workers were reported dead.

On the U.S. side of Driscoll’s operations, Rhett Searcy, a security consultant hired by Driscoll’s sub-contractor Montalvo Farms, LLC to put down a strike on the Ventura County farm that occurred on March 10, 2012 and was observed by over 100 farm workers. The complaint reads as follows:

  1. On March 10, 2012, at about 6:30 a.m., approximately eighty to one hundred of Respondent’s employees, supported by UFW organizers, went on a peaceful, day-long economic strike.
  2. Respondent responded to the strike by placing armed security guards. Self-described “strike management” and “labor dispute” consultants, outside their property, where the strike was occurring. They wore camouflage pants, grey baseball caps with an image of a black spade under a skull and cross bones, and “special forces” buttons on a jacket embroidered with “Heli Assault” and “US/NAS INM.” One of the consultants, Rhett Searcy was armed with a gun and a taser. He kept the gun in a visible holster on his side.
  3. Mr. Searcy clicked his taser while approaching employees in their vehicles who were arriving to work, and telling them to pass quickly. Mr. Searcy also approached striking employees, swinging his arms, brandishing the taser and clicking it to emit sparks of electricity.
  4. On March 10, 2012, at 10:52 a.m., the UFW filed a Notice of Intent to Take Access (“2012-NA-011-SAL” or “NA”) and served it on Respondent. UFW Organizer Francisco Cerritos and four striking employees approached a gate at approximately 11:45 a.m., to take access. Mr. Searcy was at the gate and refused to let them in. Only later were the UFW organizers allowed to take access; however, the initial, improper denial of access interfered with their legally allotted time to talk to the employees.
  5. On March 10 and March 15, 2012, during the time those UFW organizers took access. Respondent’s forepersons refused to leave the lunch area while the UFW organizers talked to them. Respondent’s anti-union campaign escalated to the point that anti-union employees physically assaulted a pro-union employee, surrounded UFW organizers and assaulted them. (The State of California, Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Moving Party and United Farm Workers of America and Constantino Rodriguez, Charging Parties v. Montalvo Farms, LLC, Respondent. pp 4-5)

In July 2013 Rhett Searcy and his brother Ryan Searcy were hired by Driscoll’s sub-contractor Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc to put down the strikes by Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Signs posted on the new fencing had the logo of TransWorld Security Systems. Felimon Pineda, Vice President of the farmworker union filed a successful lawsuit that argued that the security posts and patrols at the farm labor camps interfered with their legally protected right to concerted activity based upon Washington state law.

These restraining orders against the security teams, which had been relabeled “Food Defense and Safety Officers” were granted by Skagit County Superior Court and were continued seven times over the following year. A dispatch call from Rhett Searcy to the Skagit County Sheriff was entered into evidence during the later litigation because he had threatened to use force against the striking farm workers. Steven Sakuma told the judge, straight faced, that he had no knowledge about the call and that he had not authorized Searcy to do so and further that he did not know what Searcy’s job was as a consultant.

Driscoll’s in the aftermath of the recent state police repression and the anti-union violence that ensued afterwards in May 9, 2015, a trademark method of anti-union security consultants used by Driscoll’s Security Contractors dating back to Coastal Berry against the UFW in 1998 in Watsonville, and again against the UFW at Montalvo Farms, LLC against the UFW in 2012 and its documented use in the San Quintín Valley since the 1990s as described above by Driscoll’s sub-contractors following its expansion of operations beginning in 2004.

But what exactly does the security do? What do Food Security and Safety inspectors do? Below you will be exposed to security domains that have immerged including pandemics, international migration, environmental security, terrorism and health in the areas of globalization, human security, policy and new forms of war. In particular it should be noted that proponents of private security forces draw upon two aspects well represented in the existing literature, one that the globalization of production has “contributed to altering the nature of war, leading to a diminution of inter-state wars and a multiplication of low-intensity conflicts, insurgencies, and ethnic and civil wars (Van Creveld 1991, Kaldor 1999, Mackinlay 2002)”(12-13). And that, “globalization has undermined the capacity of states to address security and military challenges on their own, and has changed the balance between state and non-state actors (Kirshner 1998, Freedman 2002)(13). Proponents have basically come to the conclusion that state agents have now become so involved, blurring the line between state and non-state actors in the epistemic networks but also in the covered networks “engaging in illicit activities, ranging from terrorism (see below) to drug and human trafficking and the smuggling of nuclear know-how and materials (Chestnut 2007)”(ibid). Thus proponents argue that it is their jobs to act on behalf of both state and non-state actors when it comes to the areas of human security, policy, globalization and new forms of war.

One of the more interesting points being brought up by proponents of private security have included what Fiona Adamson (2006) has proposed as the problem areas of, “state capacity and autonomy; the distribution of power among states; and the nature of violent conflict (see also Guild and Selm 2oo5)”(12). The first of which stretches state limits due to “border control and collective idenitity”(ibid). Though proponents limit the first with the reality that it is only a certain, almost negligible number that gets this way they address the second with the idea that migration flows alter the composition of the states population engaging in fragmenting, eroding, and challenging deeply held settler colonialist fictions. Fictions that influence policy and the use of force to encourage states to “harness well-educated and high-skilled workers” such as H-2 or H-1 visa holders addressed via policy to the “symbolic military measures to address migration flows (e.g. interdiction operations, migrant repatriations, or naval patrolling)”(13). The role of private security as espoused by it proponents then is to provide non-state agents with the state means to fulfill its state obligations as it pertains to immigration law. The exception, that these non-state agencies are failing to understand in taking this role is that non-state agencies operating upon globalized trade will be made to abide by non-globalized state agency legislation that is both localized to each individual state and globalized to federal standards of export parameters.

While it is not in its interest to see everything ruled from above it is also not in its interest for the globalized state, such as Washington, where the three major export economies are agriculture, software (Microsoft) and manufacturing (Boeing) to only produce for itself. Therefore the development of “Food Security and Safety” go hand in hand with the development of GEO group and those enterprises, agriculture, software, manufacturing and healthcare set up to make big gains is Washington to Mexico’s future.

Climate change issues including resource scarcity, rising sea levels and the intensification of natural disasters will continue to impact the above. The role of Food Security and Safety private contractors will continue to be necessary in regions like Baja California where the state is already subsidizing expensive privately maintained desalination equipment for fresh market export production as seen above. This is in stark contrast to the use of U.S. trained naval officers to confiscate and render useless the Cucapah and Kumai owned fishing vessels who have begun to fish the ecologically protected Baja California waters since the damming of the Colorado river on the U.S. side has diminished their water supply on the Cucapah and Kumai rivers that run through their ancestral homelands. On a more abstract plain, proponents of private security argue “more frequent droughts are expected to affect crop production and, therefore, food security”(14). These will therefore address three basic types of resource wars including political instability, economic hardship and food insecurity and ultimately mass displacements of population. Though the proponents find this a stretch of their need as security in the private sphere but conclude that the responses by different nations are “so vast that the nature of responses may vary widely”(17).

Foreseeing the crisis in Mexico, the proponents of private security said the following,

Over-dependence on energy revenues can lead to domestic unrest. Not only does energy over-dependence appear to have harmed economic growth and governance in some countries…, but it has had tremendous disruptive potentials at certain junctures. A state like Mexico, for instance, which derives two thirds of its federal budget from energy revenues, would see its functioning capacities deeply affected by a sharp drop in oil prices. (17).

These private interests influenced greatly the reforms put in place by president Enrique Peña-Nieto that undid the above, but not to the advantage of the Mexican people as the proponents of private security suggested, but to the advantage of foreign interests that were contracting these private security firms to protect their holdings in Mexico.

The proponents of private security end their “analysis” of the current moment in 2013 conclude that the areas of migration, energy and the environment have already been “securitized” and that their role as TransWorld Security Systems is to make it more streamlined. Second, that the security threat lies in “our ability to cope with them”(18) as opposed to current migration, energy and environmental trends. Third, they stipulate that the destinations of this new migration, energy and environmental factors are disproportionately able to deal with these “problems” creating the need for their operation and existence particularly in those areas that are ignored or strategically left out in order to address the larger problems of border militarization, famine and displacement due to energy and environmental factors.

TransWorld Security Systems expert Thomas Riske focused his analysis upon the growth of Civil Wars as the modus operandi of Imperial superpowers since 1940. He demonstrated an exponential growth of civil wars up through then 1990s and Riske found “since 1991, almost all armed conflicts fought in the various world regions have been civil wars”(38) which is substantial because 1991 marks the end of the cold war. Riske offers that, “civil wars generally last longer than interstate wars, the average duration of civil wars between 1991 and 2009 being eight years”(ibid) whereas “the interstate wars only lasted an average of two years during the same period”(ibid). Riske emphasizes, “civil wars inflict enormous economic, social, and political costs, not just on the state on whose territory the war takes place, but usually on neighboring states as well”(ibid). In addition, Riske ads, “states exposed to civil war are also highly likely to experience large-scale violence again”(ibid). Some such as Caldor (1999) and Münkler (2002) have called these civil wars that proliferated since the cold war, the “New Wars,” though they hold the same significance they did in days of old.

Riske states that even though grievances and greed are the primary factors that lead to civil war, energy rich and food rich countries, that have “large reserves of oil, diamonds, and other resources which are nevertheless not beset by civil war”(40) such as Mexico. Thus Riske says, though greed and grievances may be enough to spark civil wars, they are by no means independent. According to Barbara Walter (2013) which Riske quotes on page 40, “For groups to initiate a civil war, they must also have an opportunity to organize into an armed movement”(Riske 2013: 40). Riske continues, “if national governments control the territory, rebels are unlikely to stage a civil war”(ibid). His argument is thus that given the opportunity to organize a resistance in non-state, contested state, or any kind of limited statehood; rebels are able to demand because of greed or grievance against the states, therefore private security forces become necessary to protect the states from the rebels or if the rebels fall upon the side of the empire, private security forces become necessary actors in helping them win. Riske identifies that most countries “in the contemporary international system contain areas of limited statehood”(ibid) which Riske defines as “areas of limited statehood” where the “central authorities – usually central governments – are too weak to exert a (legitimate) monopoly over the means of violence and/or implement and enforce central decisions”(ibid). This Riske states is what allows rebels to challenge the state where it is most weak.

It is here that Sven Chojnacki and Zeljko Branovic (2011) provide a “market analogy to argue that the emergence of different modes of security results from the strategies used by collective actors on hazardous markets of protection”(40-41). According to Riske, these “hazardous markets of protection” are what give rise to the need for the use of private security forces to bring a pre-mature end to civil wars.

Riske here beckons to the U.S. motto of intervention “to bring democracy” to these places or as the wider first world has deemed the “responsibility to protect”(42) the first world’s “commitment to international peace and security in cases of severe violations of human rights”(ibid). This “responsibility to protect” by the first world interests in places that they can’t or places that require “long-term military interventions, occupations, or trusteeships, as in the case of Kosavo, Afghanistan, or Iraq”(Ibid). Are the places, Riske argues, that they become the “subsidiary responsibility of the international community”(ibid).             Riske cautions that “while most state-building efforts by external actors, including military interventions to restore political authority, have failed due to incompatible goals between the international community and local actors, more circumscribed external efforts at security governance have proven to be more effective and successful”(43). Riske emphasizes that private security interests as “external actors have to understand that interventions in the governance arrangements of areas limited statehood change both those being interfered with and the interveners”(ibid) when the goal is the “disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR)”(Ibid).

In conclusion to the report, TransWorld Security Services, Anne-Marie Le Gloannec states that they have gone over what security today has become, “the rise of new actors, both state and non-state”(46) but also the “changing nature of security and the evolving role of security actors, particularly (but not only) states, so that eventually it becomes easier to grasp the way the United States, on the one hand, and the European Union, on the other, have adjusted to these new parameters and paradigms”(ibid). Le Gloannec here marks the US and the EU as the largest employers of TransWorld Security Systems, stressing that because of the rise of civil wars, security has changed since the end of the cold war. Le Gloannec states that “securitization” has become a farce in the aftermath of the “Global War on Terror” and Le Gloannec states that “what is new is the conflation of local and global – “glocal”-and the way globalization is ‘transforming the international security landscape [by increasing] the interconnectedness between societies and states, [by leading] to a contraction of space and time [and by] creating global challenges as well as global public goods’”(ibid). Le Gloannec points out that many of the TransWorld Security Consultants exist in particular to protect these “global public goods”(47) and that the security consultants as a result draw several fundamental questions about “global security governance”(ibid) for the purposes of “war prevention and management”(ibid) and the nature of power that is different after the cold war, in particular that the BRICS “do not contribute to the current world order”(ibid) and that “they are more inclined to undermine it by calling into question the very principles and practices which the West sought to develop and promote”(Ibid). In one fell swoop, Le Gloannec places the BRIC countries once scheduled for development by the first world as the enemies of the United States as well as European Union, to which TransWorld Security Services ties its own future growth to as their largest employers.

The Costco Connection beyond the US market

What has emerged from our examination of Costco, their suppliers Driscoll’s and First Fruits and Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc’s use of anti-union consultants for security in the 21st century is the emergence of “global public goods” including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and apples that are produced globally and protected by Food Security and Safety consultants on across multiple sites. Though production is diverse what is uniform is the use of security consultants and the use of psyto-sanitary requirements that do not address the needs of Farmworkers, only the needs of the consumer. The Costco Connection apart from being the name of the industry paper, is in particular the psyto-sanitary requirements that Costco makes to its providers in our case study this includes Driscoll’s (Sakuma Bros Farm) and First Fruits (Broetje Orchards) which both follow and use Costco’s addendums in all areas of their vertically integrated firms. Another thing that is important to highlight is the conflict of interest of several of the interests of capitalist agriculture making trade deals across the Pacific Rim without the input of farmworkers in these regions. Rather than deal with temporary farmworkers as a wealth or resource, these interests of capitalist agriculture look at farmworkers as a liability to be dealt with by security consultants with the above mission.

4 thoughts on “The Costco Connection: Farmworkers bring Driscoll’s Boycott to Respected Washington Grocer

  1. Very interesting (and disturbing). One question though: by ‘psyto-sanitary’, you mean ‘phyto-sanitary’, right? (I couldn’t find a definition of ‘psyto-sanitary’ anywhere.)

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