The Capitalist Food System and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (Archive)

Burlington, WA – May 10, 2014: Familias Unidas por la Justicia Farm Workers who live in Burlington have depended upon the social services provided by charitable non-profit organizations in the region to make it by in times when there is little work and to survive during the harvest when they receive low wages.

Today, on Mexico’s Mother’s Day, some of these farm workers came to the Tri-Parish Food Bank located behind St. Charles Catholic Church to receive food rations that supplement their family’s nutrition.

While these families were waiting in line for their rations, Ryan Sakuma, the current president of Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. arrived to the food bank and took manager José Ortiz aside and informed him that he needed to announce to the farm workers that they would not be provided cabins nor work this year and that they should look for work elsewhere.

Ortiz complied with Ryan Sakuma’s demand and gathered all of the community members present, including some who did not work for Sakuma Bros Farms to tell them that they should look for work elsewhere.

The rank and file members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia who were present immediately identified this as a reprisal for their worker initiated disruption of the Sakuma production chain last harvest when they exercised a series of coordinated work place strikes that halted production on the farm six times over low piece-rate wages, mistreatment, and retaliatory firing in order to assert their resolve to negotiate a contract that protected their rights as workers. Their biggest disruption of the existing food system was their decision to self-organize into a farm worker organization rather than depend upon non-profit organizations to negotiate on their behalf.

The workers interpreted this incident as a demand by Ryan Sakuma that they should leave Burlington, even though many have the skill and ability to work in the region and have communicated to Sakuma Bros Farms that they are ready to work and to negotiate a contract with their long-term employer.

The Capitalist Food System and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex


During the 2013 Sakuma Bros Farms labor dispute an analysis of the disorganization attempts by a network of Skagit County Non-Profit Organizations began to emerge in an article titled Undoing Privilege which was part of a series of essays titled “We make the Road by Walking” on an independent farm worker blog called Káráni.

In this essay, attention is drawn to the way that Privilege, whether based on class, citizenship or race, played a central role in emerging efforts to disorganize the self-organization of farm workers and re-integrate them into the dominant capitalist food system. It also published public records of the corporate earnings of the corporation and affiliated non-profits.

It appears that certain players were left out of this emerging conflict, perhaps in the hope that they would do the right thing, support farm workers, and back Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex

The Tri-Parish Food Bank is managed by St. Charles Catholic Church, a parish of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, WA. Through its Youth Migrant Project, St. Charles operates a charity (ministry) program that is organized around outreach to local labor camps including the Sakuma Labor Camps. The Tri-Parish Food Bank provides a summer lunch program to the migrant farm worker youth who reside at the labor camp.

In order to coordinate services, the non-profit organizations coordinate with other local non-profits and religious ministry organizations via the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council. This network of community stakeholders from non-profit organizations, by the time that we had engaged them had become fully integrated into the local economy and in particular the capitalist food system.

Together these organizations built the infrastructure of the Labor Camps for Sakuma Bros Farms over the years, including the construction of playgrounds, and drainage for the raw sewage that would pool near a large port where the Tri-Parish Food Bank would serve summer lunches.


This integration is what is known as the non-profit industrial complex, which scholar Dylan Rodriguez defines as “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements.” (INCITE! 2007)

Tri-Parish Food Bank manager Jose Ortiz, through the Skagit Immigrant Rights Council, was part of a team of local clergy who in 2004 negotiated on behalf of the Sakuma Berry pickers (Holmes 2013). Together they achieved a temporary increase in piece rate and a new company policy against the intimidation of workers by management.


The team included Seth Holmes who was conducting field research for the University of California, Jim Justice, Bob Eckblad, Josephina Beecher, and other non-profit stakeholders that provided services to the labor camp and in exchange received charitable donations from Sakuma Bros Farms and their consumer base.

This same group of clergy convened again in 2008 when the farm workers went on strike again as a community. This time there were no gains and the workers were encouraged to go back to work.


When a corporation pulls an entity such as this group of community stakeholders into a negotiation space on behalf of the workers, that space evolves into a decision making space on behalf of the farmworkers. It becomes a policy making space because all of the players are at the table. Workers in this context are forced surrender their ability to negotiate independently with their employer.

When a group of people, no matter how well intentioned, chooses to make decisions on behalf of another group of people out of charity, they have already decided that any gains made are better than where they are at the moment. This often leads to the go-between group of people settling for far less than what would recognize farm workers true dignity, and nowhere near what would be just.


In this way, the dominant capitalist food system is re-integrated, much in the same image as before, though with another layer of management that funnels financial resources not to the farm workers, but to the corporation and non-profits involved in the negotiations, who administer that capital on behalf of the farm workers. Thus the capitalist food system rebounds to its original exploitative structure, simultaneously integrating the non-profits through the exchange of capital.

Grassroots Solidarity and Farm Worker Justice

Farm worker’s self-organization into an independent union, their strikes and boycott have disrupted production and the flow of capital in the capitalist food system of the Skagit Valley. The first because the workers chose to speak for themselves, displacing the former non-profit overseers, the second resulting in the blocking of production, and the third by limiting the exchange of capital for consumption of the commodity berries produced for the public. By extension both disrupt the non-profit industrial complex economy that is integrated into the capitalist food system. This is why it is in their interest to act against the interests of farm workers and their independent self-organization.

The captains of industry (Steven Sakuma) are well aware of this and use the crisis created by the strikes and boycott upon the non-profits as well as public health (Sea-Mar) and public education (Burlington Edison School District) sector of the local economy as a wedge issue in an attempt to divide the community from supporting the struggle of farm workers, even when many of those involved were once farm workers themselves, and many of those involved depend upon the presence of Migrant farm workers to justify their salaries.

The question that Familias Unidas por la Justicia are asked by these community stakeholders and even special interest groups such as the Washington Farm Labor Association and Whatcom Farm Friends, who demand that they conform to the dominant economy of the agricultural industry, is “to what end?”.

The simple answer is that farm workers disrupt the capitalist food system because they are exercising their power and their dignity. Power comes when people have lost their fear of reprisal, usually because they have seen the worst of the oppression, and Dignity is their respect for themselves, for others and for the environment. In dignity, there is room for everyone, even those who have acted against their interests.

The current capitalist food system that exists in the United States is unsustainable. Its primary cost is human life and the dignity of workers across the food chain. These points have been argued by Familias Unidas por la Justicia elsewhere.

Through exercising their power and walking their dignity, farm workers have been able to articulate for themselves why they struggle.


Felimon Piñeda, Vice President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia explained that he is middle aged, he understands that his time as a farm worker are numbered, he is fighting for his children. Even beyond his own family, Felimon argues that he is also fighting for you, for life.


Rosario Ventura recently explained in an interview by David Bacon, “we can’t leave it like this. There is too much abuse. We are making them rich and making ourselves poor. It’s not fair.”(Bacon, The Nation, May 2, 2014)

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