Sakuma Farms workers negotiating with management
  • Tomas Madrigal
  • Sakuma Farms workers negotiating with management

Last week, over 150 farmworkers from Sakuma Farms near Burlington, a two-hour drive north of Seattle, walked off the job. The workers pick strawberries and raspberries. Sakuma Farms is a major supplier of berries to Haagen Dazs. The co-owner, Steve Sakuma, says chances are if you eat Haagen Dazs fruity ice creams, it's their berries that make them so delicious. Farm management has not returned calls seeking comment on the strike.

The workers, many of whom are undocumented, have a broad range of bold demands. They're calling on farm employees—from executives down to crew bosses—to stop with the demeaning bullshit already. "Cease and desist from disrespectful and racist language such as 'oaxaquita,' 'indio,' 'estupido,' and the use of stereotypes around inherent 'laziness,' 'drunkeness,” or 'dirtiness' of Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers," they say in a press release.

They say bosses should receive mandatory sensitivity training and be fired for racism. And they want paper receipts for their picked berries as well as better housing conditions—many of them live on labor camps run by Sakuma Farms.

Two key demands have already been met: The owners agreed to reinstate worker Federico Lopez, who was fired on July 10 for complaining about harassment, the workers say. And negotiations yesterday reportedly resulted in foreman Antonio Lopez, who workers describe as verbally abusive, being either dismissed or moved to another farm.

One of the biggest outstanding demands is for a more than doubling of wages from 30 cents per pound of berries picked to 70 cents. Workers say under the current wage rate, it's impossible to earn minimum wage. They're also demanding the farms pay for all overtime hours.

"If you want to make anything at all, you gotta really bust your ass. I cried when I was out there, because I hated it," Joaquin Martinez told me during a farmworker march in Bellingham in May. He used to pick raspberries—about half of the world's raspberries come from the region—with his family. "You'd go from bush to bush clipping all the dead stems. Half mile rows, sometimes longer... your break would be when you got done with one row, and you'd walk over to the next one."

"We have a saying as we go out to the fields: a matarse. We're killing ourselves now," Martinez added, with a wry laugh. He said the work would be bearable if wages were higher and they weren't so rushed.

Another of the Sakuma Farms workers' demands is for "adequate child care or reasonable working hours."

"It's technically illegal for kids under 13 to be working on the farms," Edgar Franks, a farmworker organizer from Communidad a Communidad, told me by phone today. "But around the whole labor camp there are tons of kids running around. The ones that are of age, there's no doubt that they're working."

Natalia Villa, a high school senior, broke down in tears as she told me about working in the fields as a minor. "You're on your knees to get the bad stems. You get scraped all over your arms and face. It was hard for me, because I was small and reaching and trying to not cut the raspberry stems," she explained.

"Sometimes we'd get in trouble for talking to our own siblings. It was horrible." Now she works as a custodian at her church. She's on her school's wrestling team and hopes to get a college scholarship. "I realized that farm working is not something I want," she said, wiping away tears. "I want to succeed and prosper in life."

The list of demands workers presented to management
  • Tomas Madrigal
  • The list of demands workers presented to management

Part of what's driving the strike is Sakuma Farms' application for 160 guestworkers from Mexico, Franks says. "They're realizing what's going on here. They're seeing a double standard. The workers that will be brought in are getting better treatment"—including higher wages, paid meals and transportation, he claims.

But there's no labor shortage, so why ship guest workers up from Mexico and then back down again? "[Because guest workers] have a big incentive not to demand their rights," says Seth Holmes, an assistant professor of anthropology at Berkeley who spent two harvest seasons researching migrant farmworkers in Skagit Valley. "They can't move to another job, because their contract depends on them working for that employer. If they left, Homeland Security or Border Patrol would be looking for them."

(Last month, Communidad a Communidad filed a complaint with the Justice Department over the Border Patrol's practice of intercepting 911 calls from immigrants in the area.)

"Things haven't changed a lot [for farmworkers in Washington] in the last ten years," Holmes says, whose book on West coast migrant farmworkers, "Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies," came out last month. "It's important that things do change, though, especially in terms of labor protections." And he says Washington should support local agriculture, "so the owners aren't scared of going bankrupt."

Sakuma Farms, interestingly, is part of a farmer coalition that supports comprehensive immigration reform. "They're always worried they're not going to have the people they need," Holmes says. "They want the workers to be able to come here safely, instead of cross a deadly border and then live in hiding."

"We don't think of Washington state as an immigrant state," Holmes points out, "but a lot of our foods from Washington—our wonderful berries and apples and grapes—are harvested by migrant farmworkers. They need respect as humans who do hard work for us to have good food."

Despite the initial concessions, Franks says the berry pickers are committed to holding out until all their demands are met. Univision, the Spanish-language TV network, is going to broadcast an interview with the farmworkers about their strike. If they don't feel isolated—the fields are out in the middle of nowhere—"they can do this until the season is over."