Editor’s note: This post is a report of a forum that one of our directors, Scott Hines, attended. As the conflict includes highly opposed and biased views, we disclaim that the facts cited below may not be verified.
With his blue jeans and Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, Ramon Torres looks similar to any of the other migrant farm workers I have met through my experiences in BSB. But he is the president of an impressive movement by workers in Washington’s Skagit Valley the likes of which this state has not seen in some time.
The group, called Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice) is made up of about 300 immigrant farm workers fighting for secure contracts, fair wages, and, ultimately, justice and respect from their employer, Sakuma Brothers Farms.
I recently attended a forum at UW Tacoma and pieced together a basic timeline. The strike began on July 11, after a farm worker was fired for complaining about the abuses he and his fellow farm workers face: racial slurs from supervisors, low wages that changed daily, and 10-13 hour workdays with no lunch breaks in inclement weather, among others.
Torres banded together a group of farm workers that refused to work that day, and they eventually were able to meet with the management of Sakuma Brothers Farms and negotiate several demands that included pay increases, retraining for abusive supervisors, and rehiring of the fired worker. Both sides agreed on the demands, but Sakuma Brothers broke them the very next day.
Since then, the farm workers continue to strike off and on as demands are re-negotiated and broken. Torres, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and has been in the US for 11 years, says he has never seen a workplace like Sakuma Brothers, where minors who are required to earn $7.81 an hour instead make $4 from a company that has no problem withholding rightfully-earned money from its workers. He recalls noticing that a 13-year-old worker was missing $300 over three weeks, so he asked a company accountant to show him how she calculates the paychecks; after two or three miscalculations he asked her to show him on paper and she miraculously came up with the correct amount.
He then went on to recalculate other workers’ paychecks and recovered over $6,000 for 25-30 workers that the company had withheld over those three weeks.
“I studied in Mexico, and I only finished high school,” Torres said at the forum. “I don’t think I should have to show you how to calculate paychecks.”
It’s that kind of dissonant behavior that may have led to Torres’ dismissal from Sakuma Brothers on September 12 for what the company cited as “personal problems.” He also blames it on the 200-person strike he arranged the previous day in which workers stopped picking for two hours until wages were raised.
“They didn’t like that I made them look bad,” he said.
Torres organized the strike because he believes that the company can afford to pay their workers more, or at least the legal minimum wage. Sakuma Brothers has been hiring guest workers through the federal H-2A program, which “allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature,” according to the US Department of Labor website.
He claims they pay the guest workers $17 per hour plus the gas it takes for them to commute. He is asking the company to pay workers $12 an hour, but the company claims it would need to pay $6 out of pocket per hour to pay this wage—even though, he says, “they have no problem paying the guest workers $17 an hour.”
Since Torres was fired, he has been leading Familias Unidas and traveling to college campuses around Washington state to spread his mission: to convince people to boycott products that use Sakuma Brothers crops, including Driscolls berries and Haagen-Dazs ice cream, until a legal contract has been made to ensure wage stability.
His group is currently trying to work with grocery stores to not carry these products, but few have agreed because of “complicated repackaging processes” and pre-existing contracts that can last until the end of the year. According to Torres, a few stores have agreed to not sign another contract with these companies until the issue is resolved.
If you want to get involved in this campaign, Torres can send 2-3 members of the committee negotiating with Sakuma Brothers to hold similar forums. He also encourages participation in their picketing and boycotts, especially by young adults and students. As Rosalinda Guillen, Executive Director of Community to Community, said in the forum, “If you eat, if you are an eater, then by God you a part of this movement.”
Scott Hines is a Director for Blood, Sweat and Berries.