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

More than 150 farmworkers at Sakuma Farms in Burlington have returned to work picking berries, for now. The workers walked off the job last week demanding better wages and treatment by bosses. The farm is a major supplier of berries to Haagen Dazs ice cream.

Negotiations between the strike committee and farm management are still ongoing. "There may be another work stoppage if negotiations halt," says Tomas Madrigal, a farmworker organizer from Communidad a Communidad based in Bellingham.

With ripe strawberries going unharvested, the workers agreed to return to the fields after winning further concessions from management. Steve Sakuma, the co-owner, has agreed to pay the pickers $3.75 per flat instead of a mere 30 cents per pound, a rate that made it nearly impossible to earn the minimum wage.

"The workers were not thrilled, because it was still a low piece rate," Madrigal says. Future piece rates, however, will be negotiated with three representatives of the berry pickers. The farmworkers can opt-out of picking certain fields if they decide the piece rate is too low.

A 2004 strike by Sakuma farmworkers yielded similar agreements on wages and improved treatment. But as migrant farmworkers cycled in and out, conditions reportedly returned to their dismal baseline by the following harvest season. This time, the new policies will be written and posted at labor camps "for future migrant workers who may not have been present during negotiations," Madrigal says.

Here's another of the strike's achievements: the removal of all teenagers from "checker" positions.

In order to generate community support for regional agriculture, farms in Skagit County have a practice of giving predominately white, non-Spanish-speaking high schoolers summer jobs on the farms, researcher Seth Holmes explained to me. "They'll stand in one spot talking with each other, until a farmworker comes over with a bucket of berries," he says. If the bucket weights 12.5 pounds, for example, the checker has the power to decide whether to round up or down.

"They learn that they should have power over people their parents or grandparents age, if they're Mexican. It's very unlikely they'd be in charge of people that age if they were white. So it plays into the hierarchy of ethnicity of immigration. They learn that they're more important than Mexicans are," Holmes says.

That sounds perverse and disturbing. But the strike has resulted in Sakuma Farms agreeing to move local teenagers from checker positions to "other light-duty jobs," and hire farmworker youths for light duty jobs as well.

In short, the strike has struck major blows against racism and poverty wages. Here's hoping the agreements by the farm owners will be enforced and lasting. Sakuma Farms has still not responded to requests for comment.