Are Your Summer Berries Being Picked by Abused Farmworkers?


When representatives of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), an independent farmworkers union, spoke at Seattle University last year, filmmaking student José Chalit Hernandez wasn’t particularly familiar with the ongoing conflict between seasonal farmworkers and management at Washington state’s Sakuma Brothers Farms. Since at least 2013, farmworkers and the union have alleged poor treatment and unfair wages at the 1,000-acre farm and processing plant in Burlington, which grows fruit for Driscoll’s, the world’s largest distributor of berries.

“After they spoke at our school and told us what they were working on—a campaign to boycott Driscoll’s, to put pressure on their employer to negotiate a union contract—it was inextricable from my own experience of immigration,” Chalit Hernandez said in an interview with TakePart.

He told the story of his grandfather, who rode a train from Mexico to Colorado to work as a farm laborer under the auspices of the Bracero Program. The 1942 labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico permitted temporary contract workers to enter the country to shore up the thinning agricultural workforce during World War II, and the program lasted until the early 1960s. Yet as early as 1943, braceros in Burlington went on strike when farmers paid higher wages to white farmworkers for the same labor. Though Chalit Hernandez’s immediate family members no longer work on farms, they were all born in Mexico, and stories like those told by the Familias Unidas por la Justicia workers resonate.

“I connected with their narrative on that personal level: These are my people,” Chalit Hernandez said. “I’m going to university to study this art form. How can I use my privileges to an advantage here?”

With fellow student Becca Clark-Hargreaves, he set out to make a short film, La Fuerza Interna (The inner strength), which screened last weekend at the Seattle Transmedia & Independent Film Festival. It’s a sympathetic portrait of the injustices as seen by FUJ and the group’s supporters, including student activists at the University of Washington, who prevailed on the school to boycott Driscoll’s. Clark-Hargreaves saw an opportunity to bring attention to an aspect of the environmental and food justice movements she thinks is often overlooked.

“A lot of the conversation, especially in food, is around consumers and labeling and how you should buy the right things,” she said. “But there isn’t as much about who is growing the food and whether the changes we’re demanding in our food system benefit those who are working within it.”

La Fuerza Interna tells those stories, like that of Alfredo “Lelo” Juarez, who was 14 at the time of filming. “My dad and mom wanted a better life,” he says as the film’s opening shots show tortillas being cooked over an open flame under the light of a bare bulb hanging by a long wire. “They didn’t do the math,” he concludes. Juarez recounts how farmworkers asked for three additional cents per pound of berries picked, bringing their per-pound rate to 33 cents. “They told us to either get in to work for the same amount, or we could just go home,” he said.

Attempting to understand the accusations lobbed from either side of the berry labor battle is like watching a brutal tennis match. FUJ accuses Sakuma Brothers of “systematic wage theft, poverty wages, hostile working conditions, and unattainable production standards,” and in 2014, the union won an $850,000 settlement over improper logging of hours and rest breaks.

Former CEO Steve Sakuma says FUJ doesn’t represent its farmworkers, labeling the group “outside agitators,” and that the high return rate of workers each year is “because of our high piece-rate wages that can far exceed minimum wage.” FUJ is asking for a union contract that guarantees $15 per hour. The Washington state minimum wage is $9.47.

“What is your real motivation, and do you really care about the workers?… I know I do, but do you?” Weeden said of the union. “If they acted differently, seemed more trustworthy, then maybe I could feel comfortable talking to them.”

Driscoll’s, meanwhile, maintains neutrality. Following several third-party audits of Sakuma’s operation, Driscoll’s found that “Sakuma is in compliance with our standards and is making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers,” according to an undated statement on its website.

Three years into the conflict, it looked like this would be a summer of breakthroughs. In June, Slow Food USA announced its support of the Driscoll’s boycott, writing, “Slow Food USA respects and values the hands that feed us. This is why we stand in solidarity with Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Support their boycott of Driscoll’s Berries and other labels who ignore their role in building a food system that is truly good, clean and fair for all.” Chalit Hernandez even snagged first place in the Seattle University Film Festival for his film.

Then came the most promising news of all: Sakuma’s CEO announced the two groups would meet on July 14 to establish a process and timelines for a secret ballot election that would allow farmworkers to decide whether they want the union’s representation.

“The meeting on July 14 was a productive one,” said Latino Advocacy principal Maru Mora Villalpando, who coordinates communication on behalf of FUJ. “No decisions were made during this meeting, but FUJ is looking forward to continuing the conversation with Sakuma.’’

But on July 27, a worker posted a video recorded on the road in front of a blackberry field owned by another farm. Around 150 workers had moved there to find better-paying work after Sakuma supervisors denied a request for a wage increase from 56 cents per pound to a dollar.

“As a farmworker, you don’t know how much you are going to get paid each day,” the unidentified man in the video says. “And you still have to pay for gas, child care, food. To come to work not knowing how much you’re going to make that day—it’s an unfair process.”

This article originally appeared on TakePart. Reprinted with permission.

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