One of the most significant highlights of 2016, for me, was the phone call I received the night before Labor Day to inform me that Familias Unidas por la Justicia and Sakuma Brothers Farm had signed a legally binding agreement outlining how the two parties would settle a four-year-long labor dispute on Sakuma Brothers’ berry farm in Washington State. Sakuma Brothers is a major supplier to Driscoll’s, the largest distributor of berries in the world, and to Häagen-Daz ice cream brand, among others. Until this year, management at Sakuma had not recognized the farmworker union, undermining the spirit of freedom of association.
In my capacity as campaign director at Fair World Project, I spent the summer facilitating dialogue between worker representatives of Familias Unidas and executives at Sakuma. Prior to the agreement in September, Familias Unidas had won concessions through a series of walkouts and lawsuits over the years. A landmark lawsuit in 2015 won paid breaks for farmworkers not only at Sakuma Brothers Farm, but throughout the state of Washington. Tensions were high. It had been several years since union representatives and management had come to the table to try to amicably work out their differences.
In May 2016, Fair World Project mobilized thousands of consumers and dozens of organizations to sign a petition and letter in solidarity with Familias Unidas. Following this, Fair World Project was invited to play a role in facilitating the dialogue between Familias Unidas and Sakuma Brothers Farm. The September agreement was a historical moment and outlined a way forward for both organizations. It focused their attention away from historic tensions and differences and toward their shared interest in the viability of the farm.
Included in the agreement were parameters for an election to verify Familias Unidas as the chosen representative of the berry pickers as well as terms for a subsequent contract negotiation. Because farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which establishes the framework for unions and collective bargaining for most other workers, there are few farms where workers have organized and even fewer independent unions.
As I think ahead to 2017 and the current divisive political climate, what I learned on my journey last year has given me hope and also provided some concrete lessons to inform my organizing going forward. These lessons may be useful to others concerned with food security, worker rights and economic justice, as well.
1. Farmers and farmworkers have similar interests and must work together.
Farmworker leaders of Familias Unidas sat down with Danny Weeden, the new CEO of Sakuma Brothers Farm, early in the summer. The first meeting was short, no more than one hour. But it was already a new beginning for the farm. Farmworkers are the most marginalized segment of our food chain, but farmers often do not fare much better and both are often at the mercy of corporate power and concentration further up the chain. Farmers and farmworkers committing to working together can improve the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of farms. Both Familias Unidas and Sakuma showed tremendous leadership and commitment to finding a mutually beneficial outcome. This shift is welcomed and needed.
2. Farming remains economically precarious.
One of my first visits to the farm was just days after a hail storm. The tiny marks left behind on the blueberries in some of the fields did not affect the flavor, but were a cosmetic blemish that would be rejected by consumers. The blueberries in these fields had been intended for the more lucrative fresh market, but would need to go to the frozen processed market instead. This was a financial setback for the farm, but also for farmworkers since they would now be machine harvested, rather than hand harvested, providing fewer working hours.
3. Climate change is real and already having an impact.
While walking the fields, I heard over and over that blackberries were the most desirable berries to pick since they are most predictable and lucrative. One of the farmworkers shared that he had picked blackberries last year and had intended to this year as well. To get work in blackberries, workers must also pick strawberries. This worker was in California picking berries in June. That season went late while Washington’s strawberry season was short and early. The farmworker didn’t make it to Washington in time to pick strawberries, so didn’t get a position picking blackberries. This kind of shift and unpredictability of crop patterns is likely to be more common as climate change accelerates, affecting migration patterns and economic prospects of farmworkers and disrupting farms’ own plans to secure labor when needed or to meet customer expectations. When political leaders deny climate change, it is important to remember that it is not a theory to debate, but a reality already affecting the health and finances of some of the most vulnerable, including those who depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
4. A lack of legal framework does not prevent action.
We asked Sakuma to recognize Familias Unidas as a union and honor their request to meet. Farmworkers had already won some improvements over the course of four years of organizing, but still wanted formal recognition and a contract. The right to organize is a fundamental human right. Yet the law does not provide a framework for farmworkers to collectively bargain in most states. In the case of Sakuma, this meant before negotiations could begin, an agreement about steps leading up to a negotiation, including a fair election, needed to be crafted. This agreement, signed on the eve of Labor Day between Familias Unidas and Sakuma, can now serve as a model for other farms. It serves as a reminder that even in the absence of a legal framework, there can be paths to meaningful action.
5. It takes many people working together to accomplish real change.
For the first time in years, Sakuma’s berry season will start this year with a contract, not mired in conflict. This is no easy feat and took the support of many: farmworker leaders on the farm, volunteers who supported farmworkers on the ground, consumers who signed petitions, farm staff who worked to secure a neutral election site. They all contributed to this accomplishment. Anyone who wants to support the fight for economic justice and labor rights for the people who produce our food can play a role. Conscious consumers can engage and respond to appeals from farmworkers to support their on-farm struggles and policy campaigns. Consumers who cannot join a campaign directly can show solidarity by looking for opportunities to buy products verified by farmworker-led certification programs or that carry a union label.
Grassroots organizing, creative solutions, recognition of economic and environmental realities and greater collaboration will be even more important in the coming months and coming years. I am grateful for the experiences and models that show us what is indeed possible and necessary in working for transformative social change.