Sakuma berry farm proposes vote on union

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Representatives of Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County, Wash., plan to meet with Families United for Justice to discuss an election to determine whether workers want to be represented by the group.

Sakuma Brothers Farms proposed Friday that workers cast secret ballots to determine whether they want union representation, the same day a federal judge dealt the Washington berry grower one final loss in a class-action lawsuit by ordering the company to pay out almost $250,000 in legal fees.

The Skagit County-based business plans to meet Thursday with representatives of Families United for Justice to work out the details of holding an election overseen by a neutral party and involving about 300 to 330 workers, Sakuma spokesman Roger van Oosten said.

If a majority votes to be represented by the group, “we’ll sit down and work out a contract with the workers,” he said.

Families United for Justice said in a statement that it was encouraged by Sakuma’s offer, though it complained the company announced its proposal before Thursday’s meeting.

The group has sought to represent Sakuma’s workers for four years and has organized protests at the farm and events along the West Coast to promote a boycott of products that contain Sakuma berries.

Sakuma grows and processes strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. The 85-year-old family-owned business was started by brothers from Japan. It also operates Norcal Nursery in Red Bluff, Calif.

Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden decided it was in the best interest of the employees and the company’s future to hold a vote, van Oosten said.

“I wouldn’t say (the boycott) is threatening the survival of the farm. I would say it’s an annoyance. This is an opportunity to bring some clarity to it,” he said.

Families United for Justice advocates a $15-an-hour minimum wage, plus overtime. Washington’s current minimum wage is $9.47 an hour. Van Oosten said the average pay for piece-rate pickers for the recently completed strawberry harvest was about $17 an hour.

In a separate matter, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle on Friday awarded $251,699 to Columbia Legal Services and Terrell Marshall Law Group, the full amount the firms sought for representing Sakuma workers before the state Supreme Court.

Pechman’s decision was the last piece of business in a 2013 class-action lawsuit brought by two Sakuma workers alleging pay violations.

Sakuma settled most issues out of court by paying 408 workers a total of $500,000 and their lawyers $350,000.

In addition, the company this year retroactively paid $87,160 to pickers who worked in 2014 after the Supreme Court ruled piece-rate workers must be paid separately for 10-minute rest breaks. The average payout per worker was $231.

Sakuma’s attorney had argued the two law firms should receive no more than $87,785.

“We’re very pleased,” Columbia Legal Services attorney Daniel Ford said. “I think the judge recognized the work involved in representing a large class of farmworkers in a complex case.”

The Supreme Court decision, handed down a year ago, changed pay practices on farms throughout Washington.

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