Burlington, WA—There is not much love lost between the owners of Sakuma Brothers Farms and Ramon Torres, the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Sakuma Brothers is one of the largest berry growers in Washington state, and Familias Unidas is a grassroots union organized by the company’s workers. Torres used to work in the Sakuma fields. He was fired after the pickers went on strike in 2013.
This month, on September 12, the workers finally voted to demonstrate support for a union after years of organizing. This election is a watershed: Familias Unidas por la Justicia is the first union organized by farm workers in the United States in many years.
The balloting took place over four hours at the company office, two hours north of Seattle, surrounded by Sakuma’s blueberry fields. After all the votes had been cast, Torres and a small group of workers and supporters drove over to the polling place to watch the count. A company manager balked, however. The votes wouldn’t be tallied as long as Torres was on the property, he said.
After a lot of arguing, the workers retired to a local schoolyard, together with Richard Ahearn, former regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. There, on the tailgate of a pickup belonging to State Senator John McCoy, Ahearn counted the ballots. The result: 195 for the union, and 58 against.
This ended up being an appropriate place to tally the votes after all. “The majority of students at that elementary school are Latino, Senator McCoy has been a fierce advocate for these workers, and this is as much a public victory as a union victory,” said Jeff Johnson, who heads the Washington State Labor Council for the AFL-CIO.
The union is a grassroots organization formed by the pickers themselves, and is led by indigenous Mixtec and Triqui migrants from the southern Mexico states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas. A union contract at Sakuma Brothers could give this union the stability and resources needed to make substantial changes in the economic conditions of its own members, and of farm workers across western Washington.
Strikes and organizing among agricultural laborers, especially indigenous migrants, have been on the rise all along the Pacific coast over the last several years. What happened in Burlington will further raise the expectations of thousands of people working in the fields, from northern Mexico to the Canadian border. “This is a new dawn,” Torres said. “When we were celebrating afterwards, people began saying, ‘From now on we know what the future of our children is going to be.’”
The union in Burlington won the loyalty of the Sakuma workforce through three picking seasons of strikes and direct action. Almost all of the work stoppages challenged the company over low wages and its methods for calculating the “piece rate,” which is a pay rate based on how much the workers pick. Before he was fired in 2013, Torres was chosen by workers as their spokesperson while attempting to set what they considered fair rate: one that would guarantee $14 per hour.