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With contract signed, Sakuma CEO sees labor strife over

Sakuma Brothers Farms and a farmworker union signed a labor agreement Friday; strawberry picking begins Monday
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on June 19, 2017 11:11AM

Don Jenkins/Capital Press
Attorneys who successfully sued Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County in Washington are seeking $235,000 in legal fees. The berry farm’s attorney calls the request unreasonable.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Attorneys who successfully sued Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County in Washington are seeking $235,000 in legal fees. The berry farm’s attorney calls the request unreasonable.

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Berry harvesters at Sakuma Brothers Farms in northwest Washington will begin working Monday under a two-year union contract that will guarantee piece-rate pickers an average of at least $15 an hour.

Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden said that he expects the contract to close a tumultuous period in the 85-year-old farm’s history. The company has been the target of lawsuits, pickets, boycotts and work stoppages for several years.

“This puts an end to all of that,” he said. “There’s no need for that other stuff.”

The Skagit County farm is only the third agricultural operation with a unionized workforce in the state, joining a winery and cattle feedlot. The company recognized and entered into negotiations last year with the union, Familias por la Justicia.

“We’re very pleased and excited to have an agreement after these four years,” said Jason Holland, the union’s lead negotiator. Holland, an organizer for the Washington Public Employees Association, volunteered his services.

The farm cultivates 1,000 acres of strawberries, blackberries and blueberries and has a heavy demand for hand harvesting. The seasonal workforce covered by the contract swells to between 400 and 500 workers at the peak of harvest.

Holland and Weeden both said the piece-rate pay system will be complicated. Piece-rates will be set by test picks, but can be adjusted upward later so that the average picker earns at least $15 an hour. The minimum wage will be $12 an hour, $1 above state minimum wage. Pickers must meet performance standards to keep their jobs.

“We believe overall this is going to raise the wages for the members,” Holland said. “The contract will bring wages up for a significant number of members and allow people at the top to continue to do well.”

Said Weeden: “Overall, we’re not expecting our labor costs to increase on a per-pound basis.

“We’ve been paying good wages, and we’ll continue to pay good wages,” he said.

Holland said he expects the union contract to draw workers to Sakuma. The contract includes provisions for due process in disciplining workers and management-labor communications. Disputes over contract provisions will be settled by binding arbitration.

Weeden said he expects workers to be attracted, knowing that work stoppages have ended. “I think this will be an opportunity to increase our supply of labor. We’ll see,” he said.

“We’re going to see how it works. We were struggling with how it was working before,” Weeden said. “Other farms weren’t dealing with what we were dealing with.

“This is just about our farm,” he said. “We’re trying to turn this into a very positive thing for everyone.”

The contract won 85 percent approval from workers, according to a Facebook post Friday afternoon by the union. The Skagit Valley Herald reported that 66 workers voted.

Union President Ramon Torres said on Facebook that the contract was a historic victory for workers.

“They are happy to be working at Sakuma farms with a union contract. Everybody is ready to get to work. There will soon be union berries in the marketplace!” he stated.

Strawberry picking begins Monday. Weeden said he expects the farm will have enough workers.

“The crop looks very good at this point,” he said.



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