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Group urges support for besieged berry farm

Dan Wheat
Supporters of a large Skagit County, Wash., berry farm say it has been unfairly targeted by union activists and that other farms should come to its aid.

BURLINGTON, Wash. — Two members of the Skagit County Farm Bureau have formed a group to support the Sakuma Bros. Farms and are urging other Washington farmers to support the berry growers as a way to help prevent labor unrest from spreading.

“I Love Berries” was formed by Amy Cable, 26, and Kristen Hinton, 37, who grew up on a potato farm and cattle ranch, respectively, near Mount Vernon.

“We’re just two gals from farming families who want people to wake up and realize what’s going on. We hear people say in stores, ‘Don’t buy those berries because they’re bad.’ We’re trying to educate people that they’re not bad,” Cable said.

As Farm Bureau members, Cable and Hinton wanted to do something to support Sakuma and launched their “I Love Berries” campaign modeled after the “I Love Spinach” campaign in California’s Salinas Valley. They’ve made “I Love Berries” bumper stickers and signs and held events supporting Sakuma.

On July 11, they held a counter rally as farmworkers were marking the one-year anniversary of the first strike against Sakuma by the labor group Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The group initially was seeking higher wages and better housing but now is seeking unionization.

The company is a large berry producer and employs about 900 people.

“We appreciate all that the ‘I Love Berries’ people have done for us and thank the community from the bottom of our heart for supporting us,” Ryan Sakuma, company president, told Capital Press.

“This is not us versus the farm worker. We understand that we all work hand-in-hand,” he said.

According to a fact sheet posted on the company’s website, the 85-year-old company has a long history of providing the best wages and work environment possible. The fact sheet says the president of Familias Unidas was fired by the company in September 2013 after he was charged with domestic abuse at company housing.

Familias Unidas succeeded in getting better pay, $11.97 per hour plus a piece rate incentive, and housing upgrades, Cable said.

“They ask for something, they get it and then they want to sue again for something else. We wonder what the end game is,” she said.

This spring, Familias Unidas won court rulings gaining company housing for workers’ families and the hiring of workers who struck last year. The group now wants a union contract and is back in court arguing against a clause in individual contracts whereby workers waive their ability to sue regarding contract terms.

The group opposed Sakuma hiring H-2A foreign guest workers and Sakuma quit doing so. The company has said it was unable to harvest 900,000 pounds of berries last year because of a lack of workers.

In June, in a settlement yet to be approved in federal court, Sakuma agreed to pay $850,000, with $500,000 of that divided proportionally, based on number of days worked, among an estimated 1,200 workers who worked piece rate from 2010 through 2103. The rest of the money is to go to attorney fees, litigation costs and awards to class representatives.

Not all of the workers are pushing for unionization. Some support Sakuma and not all of Familias Unidas’ 200 to 300 members are Sakuma employees, Cable said.

Cable and Hinton are trying to raise public awareness of Sakuma’s plight and gain support for the company. They are writing letters to county Farm Bureaus and commodity commissions in the state. They say what happens at Sakuma could have implications for other labor-intensive industries like the tree fruit industry in Central Washington.

“I don’t want to know what the world would be like if ag as unionized all the way,” Cable said.



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