Remember Sakuma Brothers Farms? The sprawling berry farm in Skagit Valley that's totally a friendly family farm, not a multi-million dollar company built on the exploitation of migrant workers (including children) who do excruciating, low-paying work picking berries and live in decrepit labor camps that are nothing more than clusters of run-down shacks?
The farm is preparing for this year's harvest season, which begins in June, by declaring that it will exclusively rely on berry pickers imported from Mexico under the government's H-2A guest worker program. But that means the hundreds of farmworkers who stormed off the farm last summer on strike will be out of the job this year—if the farm's application is approved by the Deparment of Labor. (The farm is still under investigation for using guest workers last year during a labor dispute, which is prohibited.)
Here's the thing: the farmworkers who've picked berries for Sakuma Brothers in the past are dropping off hundreds of signed letters—farmworker Ramon Torres, who led the strike last year, has 317 in hand and expects to soon have more than 400, as more seasonal workers migrate north from California—with the Department of Labor that say they're ready and able to work for the farm.
But the farm says there's a labor shortage. "That's a lie, there are a lot of workers," Torres says when I reach him by phone. I ask whether they're ready to work. "Sí, ahora," he responds emphatically. Last year, Sakuma Brothers Farms fired Torres for a domestic violence charge and tried to drag his reputation through the mud by incessantly bringing it up and posting the arrest record number on its website. The charge was thrown out with prejudice by a Skagit County judge in February, meaning it had no basis and the plaintiff (in this case, the state) cannot appeal.
By law, a farm cannot use imported guest workers unless the government certifies that there are not enough "able, willing, qualified, and available" US workers, and that the wages and working conditions of US workers won't be adversely impacted.
It's hard to see how either of those things could be true in this case, but I'd like to hear owner Steve Sakuma's side of the story. The farm's public relations consultant says he won't be available for an interview until next month. In the meantime, Henry Bierlink, writing on behalf of industry group Whatcom County Farm Friends in a op-ed published Wednesday in the Lynden Tribune, compares the campaign of farmworkers, their student supporters at Western Washington University, and labor activists to organize at Sakuma Brothers Farms—here's the fledgling union's latest letter (PDF) to farm management—to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (members of the Sakuma family were interned during that period).
"We can’t know how every specific dealing with farm workers was handled," Bierlink writes. "Undoubtedly farm managers don’t manage every situation perfectly. But to demonize their farm, family and their customers is simply wrong, irresponsible, and intentionally divisive. Watching a family that endured the WWII internment camps go through another fear-based torment is painful."
No business owner likes it when workers organize, I get that. But really? Really?