Sakuma Bros. Farms violated labor and tenant laws by barring visitors from company-provided worker housing, according to a Washington state judge.
Skagit County Judge Susan K. Cook on Tuesday ordered the policy be removed from the employee handbook.
The ruling, which came the morning after a day-long hearing, was a victory for Familias Unidas Por La Justicia in its ongoing battle with the Burlington, Wash., berry farm.
“They’re very happy with the ruling,” the group’s attorney, Kathy Barnard, said.
The group argued the policy violated workers’ privacy and was imposed to retaliate against union activity.
The farm’s CEO and co-owner, Steve Sakuma, said the rule was intended to create a “peaceful, safe environment for people to live in.”
“Is that anti-union? Not in my opinion,” he said.
Barnard said the policy kept farmworkers from entertaining guests, whether they were relatives, friends or union organizers.
“Those were the actual effects of the rules,” she said.
The hearing and ruling came too late to have any immediate effect because the workers are gone for the season. Although forced to amend its employee handbook for 2015, Sakuma faces no the other penalty.
“Our goal wasn’t to sanction Sakuma, our goal is to ensure the freedom of the farmworkers,” Barnard said.
Cook agreed to allow the company to record the names of visitors.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with that,” Barnard said.
Sakuma has been embroiled in lawsuits, periodic labor stoppages and calls for a boycott for more than a year.
In June, Cook ruled the company couldn’t bar non-working family members from living in worker housing.
Sakuma decided against appealing that decision and said Tuesday’s ruling was “nothing we can’t live with.”
He lamented the continuing court battles.
“There are no winners in there (the courtroom),” he said. “The very people who should be working together were sitting on opposite sides.”
The company last spring agreed to pay workers $500,000 in back pay to settle a federal lawsuit out of court.
The settlement didn’t resolve the issue of whether piece-rate workers must be paid for rest breaks. The Washington State Supreme Court may take up that issue next year. Lawyers representing Sakuma workers estimate a ruling would affect some 130,000 Washington farmworkers.
Besides pay and housing, Sakuma and Familias Unidas have clashed over whether the company will hire foreign workers on temporary H-2A visas.
Worker advocates charged Sakuma’s application to bring in foreign workers for the 2014 harvest was intended to undercut efforts to organize domestic workers into a union. The company withdrew the application last spring and reported being short of pickers for summer and fall harvests.
Steve Sakuma said Tuesday that the company will consider applying to hire H-2A workers for 2015.
“It is the only option for a stable, legal workforce,” Sakuma said. “There is a dwindling supply of migrant seasonal labor.”
He said he can’t find enough U.S. citizens to work the fields and that the supply of migrant labor has been shrunk by aging and deportations. Also, some workers have obtained an education and better jobs, he said. “That’s the American way. That’s a great thing.”