Farmworkers march towards the gate of Sakuma Brothers Farms last year
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  • Farmworkers marching at Sakuma Brothers Farms last year, long before a court victory like this was in sight.

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In another victory for migrant farmworkers, Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of the largest berry farms in Washington state, has entered into a settlement with workers who filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging systematic unpaid wages and denials of breaks from the difficult work of picking berries in the fields. Columbia Legal Services (CLS), whose attorneys helped negotiate the agreement in mediation, claims it's the biggest wage and hour settlement for farmworkers on record in Washington State.

The settlement shows that "farmworkers can have access to the courts and get a measure of justice," says attorney Dan Ford, but he warns that farmworkers deserve greater representation in courts and stronger enforcement of their labor rights.

Under the terms of the agreement, $350,000 will go to cover lawyer's fees and the remaining $500,000 will be divvied up between roughly 1,200 eligible Sakuma Brothers Farms workers who were employed between 2010 and 2013. One of the plaintiffs, farmworker Ana Lopez, worked 293 days during the claims period, Ford explains. She'll receive at least $1,707 under the agreement.

And the settlement applies to workers like 15-year-old Luis, who told me last year, "I thought I was getting ripped off. I deserve to get paid minimum wage, and that's it...They weren't paying the kids minimum wage for the whole season." It was complaints about missing wages, and alleged racist taunts from supervisors, that triggered a series of walkouts by workers at the farm last year.

Sakuma Brothers Farms admitted there were payroll glitches in response to my story last year, but otherwise denied the farmworker allegations. However, the settlement agreement stipulates that the farm do the following:

  • Accurately track all hours worked by berry pickers
  • Accurately round the amount of hours worked (another thing workers complained the farm wasn't doing)
  • Provide clear pay statements that delineate piece rates and amounts of berries picked
  • Ensure that workers are given 30 minute breaks where they can leave the fields
  • Upon request from any piece-rate berry picker, provide the worker with documentation of his or her clock-in and clock-out time and quantity of berries picked
  • Guarantee that it will not retaliate against any worker participating in the lawsuit

The settlement still needs to be approved by a federal judge later this month, but in a statement, Sakuma Brothers Farms confirmed that a settlement was reached—and sought to diminish its importance:

We could have continued to fight this in court and believe we would have prevailed. But that would have cost millions of dollars and taken years to resolve. The reality is that while this agreement amount may seem large, nearly half of it was demanded as fees for the workers’ attorneys. We felt it was in our company’s best interest to settle this issue now so we could focus our attention on farming strawberries.
Sakuma Brothers Farms has tried, at every turn, to portray itself as a humble family-run business under unfair attack from manipulative labor activists—the farm's spokesman said the activists were "from outside our community" and had "convinced" farmworkers to go on strike.

But the farm finally broke from that stubborn rhetoric last month when it dropped its attempt to import guest workers from Mexico (after an administrative judge found deficiencies in their application to the government for the workers). "We listened to our critics"—namely the farmworkers who argued they were being displaced with a more docile labor force, and their supporters—"and we recognized that we could do better," said the farm's owner, Steve Sakuma.

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That raised the question: Would Sakuma Brothers Farms finally negotiate in good faith with workers who'd organized to improve their working conditions? Or would they continue to dismiss, deny, and undermine the claims of their own berry pickers, who do vital, excruciating work—picking off of vines the delicious berries that wind up in produce aisles and Haggen Dazs ice cream across the country—that seemingly no one else is willing to do?

Last fall, the farm claimed the class action lawsuit which is now settled "had no merit." But here they are, compelled by the legal system to do better by their workers. Instead of seizing this opportunity to tout better working conditions for their own employees, the company is openly declaring that it only grudgingly accepted the deal.

The farm's harvest season for strawberries starts this month, so the company might want to dial down any other signs like that of hostility towards workers. Otherwise, boycott picket lines like this one aren't going to go away, and farmworkers are going to keep winning.