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Sakuma workers vote to join union; boycott over

Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on September 14, 2016 8:23AM

Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in northwestern Washington voted Monday for union representation.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in northwestern Washington voted Monday for union representation.

In an election supervised by outside observers, workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms in northwestern Washington voted Monday for union representation, a rare case of farmworkers organizing in the state.

The berry farm, which agreed to the election after three years of labor unrest, said 195 workers voted yes, while 58 voted no.

CEO Dan Weeden said in a written statement that the company will negotiate with the union, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia.

“Throughout this process it has been our goal as a company and my personal goal to give our employees a fair and honest voice,” he said. “Sakuma now looks forward to a productive negotiation of a contract with FUJ for our employees.”

Sakuma, a family-owned farm founded by brothers from Japan before World War II, has been the target of pickets and lawsuits since 2013.

FUJ organizers and their supporters promoted a secondary boycott of Driscoll’s and Haagen Dazs, companies supplied by Sakuma. Organizers called off the boycott when Sakuma agreed to hold the election.

“While we are still a ways off from a contract, it is time to celebrate the victory to date and to recognize that justice prevailed yesterday,” the union posted Tuesday on Facebook.

If the company and FUJ sign a contract, Sakuma will become the third agricultural producer in Washington to have a collective bargaining agreement with workers, according to sources.

The United Farm Workers represents workers at Beef Northwest, a feedlot in Quincy, and Chateau Ste. Michelle, a winery in Woodinville.

The UFW was not involved in organizing Sakuma’s workers. “We’re quite pleased by the vote. The more unionized workers in the state the better,” said UFW National Vice President Erik Nicholson, who’s based in Washington.

Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said FUJ’s success may encourage other union organizers.

“I think it will give confidence to the labor activists that they can repeat their success on other farms. I think that’s the primary impact,” he said. “It was purely a voluntary decision by Sakuma Brothers. They felt that was the best decision for their business given their situation.”

Sakuma proposed a union certification vote after a prolonged boycott, reminiscent of a campaign in the 1990s against Chateau Ste. Michelle.

The National Labor Relations Act exempts farmworkers from collective bargaining rights. Unlike California, Washington does not have a separate state law for certifying farmworker unions. California’s law protects farmworkers and employers from unfair practices, according to the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Gempler said he was involved in negotiations in the early 1990s on a Washington agricultural labor relations law. Legislation failed to pass, and the subject has not been raised in recent years.

State Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, attended Monday’s vote count in Mount Vernon. He said he would be interested in talking with producers and labor leaders about an agricultural labor law. “We probably ought to have the conversation,” he said.

Washington State Labor Council spokesman David Groves said a law could help all sides.

“I think it would be in the employers’ best interest. Clearly, it would be in the workers’ best interests,” he said.

In 2014, Sakuma paid $850,000 to workers and their attorneys to settle a federal class-action over pay practices. The suit also changed farm pay practices statewide. Piece-rate workers must now be paid separately for rest breaks.

Monday’s election was supervised by former National Labor Relations Board regional director Richard Ahearn and Kerstin Lindgren of Fair World Project.


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