Washington state berry farm workers ratify historic first contract

BURLINGTON, Wash.—Some 200 farm workers at the giant Sakuma Brothers berry farm in Skagit County, Wash., culminated a 4-year organizing drive and union vote by negotiating and ratifying a successful first contract, the Northwest Labor Press reported.

The workers, represented by the independent Familias Unidas Por La Justicia union, drew support from the state AFL-CIO and other labor groups. They helped themselves by launching and publicizing a successful boycott of the Sakuma berries until management agreed to allow the union recognition vote and, if the union won, to come to the bargaining table last September. The contract, reached June 15, was ratified by an 85-15 percent ratio.

The win is notable because farm workers are among the least-organized – and lowest-paid – workers in the U.S. Federal labor law specifically exempts them from its mandates. Only California has a state farm worker law and a state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to rule on farmworker-management disputes.  That occurred after long United Farm Workers lobbying.

Unlike other farm workers around the country, most Sakuma farm workers speak neither English nor Spanish, union spokeswoman Maru Mora Villalpando told the Labor Press. She said they are indigenous speakers of Mixtec and Triqui and hail from the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

The language barriers did not stop the Sakuma Brothers berry farm workers from achieving their goals: An hourly pay floor of $12, a dollar above the state’s current minimum wage, piece rates per trays of picked berries which will produce hourly pay rates of $15 for most workers, seniority rights in hiring and layoffs, and “just cause” protections against arbitrary discipline and firings. The contract also gives the workers “Weingarten rights,” which let the worker demand presence of a union rep during discussions with the boss if the worker believes they face company discipline. The pact expires in June 2019.

Source: PAI