Fired just for asking for a raise, Washington farm workers organize
Ramon Torres, President of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, prunes blueberry bushes on the land of the union's new cooperative, Tierra y Libertad. | David Bacon

In 2013, in Washington State, Familias Unidas por la Justicia was born when migrant indigenous Mexican blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Brothers Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then organized work stoppages for the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages. At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities on the Pacific Coast to pressure Sakuma’s main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll’s Inc. In 2017, the farm’s owners agreed to an election, and the union won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms.

“We know this contract is going to change our lives,” says Ramon Torres, FUJ president.  “We have always been invisible people, but now our children will have the opportunity to keep studying. It’s not that we want to get them out of the fields but we want them to have an opportunity to decide they want.  Our members understand that we are not just farmworkers.  We are part of a community.”

Since signing the contract, work stoppages have occurred on many nearby ranches. Most of those workers are also Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. Familias Unidas has been able to help workers in these spontaneous strikes. The piece rate for picking berries at Sakuma Brothers Farms has increased dramatically, with some workers earning as much as $30 per hour.  Now farmworkers at other farms have taken action to raise their own wages.

“The wages on the other farms are much lower,” Torres explains.  “So our vision is to help form independent unions and negotiate contracts there also. Everything is led by the workers.  The purpose is to grow the union so that all of us have fair wages.”

After winning its contract, FUJ members organized the Co-operativa Tierra y Libertad.  Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community Development in Bellingham, helped workers form both the union and the co-op.  “Today the production of food is based on how much profit a farmer or a corporation can make,” she charges.  “Farmworkers are a cost. Growers don’t invest in us because they don’t believe we’re worth it.”

Farm workers and their supporters march to protest the death of Honesto Silva, on the anniversary of his death a year earlier. Hosesto Silva was a guestworker recruited to work at Sarbanand Farms. Other farm workers charge that he died because of excessive heat and pressure by the company to keep working. | David Bacon

But she believes the culture of indigenous farm workers is a resource for developing sustainable agriculture.  “Many migrants coming to the U.S. were farmers in Mexico and Central America.  Because of the trade agreements like NAFTA, they were displaced and moved north. Many are in the caravans, and now in the detention centers in the U.S.  But they know how to grow food with no chemicals, how to conserve water, how to take care of the land. We have to organize these farmers and see them as a resource because the corporate food system is poisoning the earth and the water. Farmworkers suffer illness from the pesticides, and broken bodies because of the pressure to work fast, in bad conditions.  The average lifespan of a farmworker is 49 years. Fourteen years ago it was 47.”

In the eyes of Torres and the workers, the co-operative is an alternative for workers to the wage exploitation they’ve suffered since coming to the U.S.  This co-op uses the tradition of mutual help that is part of the indigenous culture of the workers themselves.  “In the co-op, we are educating workers,” he says.  “We want to be an example.   We do not need supervisors or managers. We do not need owners. We can be the owners – we just need land.”

Tierra y Libertad has just signed an agreement to purchase 65 acres in Everson, in addition to the two acres it is already farming near Sumas.  Twenty acres are planted in red raspberries, seven in blueberries and four in strawberries.  In addition to the handful of founding members, five more families are being trained in the co-op’s operations.  Last year it sold berries in community food co-ops, stores on Camano Island, local fruterias, and even in front of churches after services.  When the harvest begins next spring it hopes to expand to other areas as well.

“We want a system in which we can live and buy locally,” Torres says, “where our gains stay here in the county.  At the same time, we will compete with the corporations that have been making money from us.”

Basic to the vision of both FUJ and the co-op is the idea that farm work is skilled, and should provide a decent life and respect for those who do it.  One of the biggest obstacles, however, is the growth of the H-2A visa program, that treats immigrant farmworkers as temporary labor, contracted for the harvest and then sent back to Mexico once it’s over.

Companies using the H-2A program must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, listing the work and living conditions and the wages workers will receive. The company must provide transportation and housing. Workers are given contracts for less than one year and must leave the country when their work is done. They can only work for the company that contracts them, and if they lose that job they must leave immediately.

Modesto Hernandez, a member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, prunes blueberry bushes on the land of the union’s new cooperative, Tierra y Libertad. | David Bacon

In 2017 Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, about 12,000 of whom were recruited by the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA). Last year about 200,000 H-2A workers were brought to the U.S. and this year the number will exceed 240,000.  “In the capitalist system we are disposable and easily replaceable,” Guillen says.  “The guest worker program is a good example.  You bring people in and ship them out and make money off them. It’s time to end that. We’re human beings and we’re part of the community.”

In the summer of 2017 seventy H-2A workers refused to work at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, after one of the fellow workers collapsed in the field, and later died.  The strikers were then deported because workers with these visas have no right to strike. “The impact of this system on the ability of farm workers to organize is disastrous,” Guillen charges.  Workers faced replacement at Sakuma Brothers Farms as well before the union contract was negotiated.

The flow of workers isn’t the only cross-border issue facing Washington farmworkers.  Recently two leaders of the new independent union for agricultural laborers in Baja California’s San Quintin Valley visited FUJ and the new co-op.  “Workers in Mexico and the United States work for the same companies, like Driscoll’s.  says Lorenzo Rodriguez, the general secretary of the National Independent Democratic Union of Farm Workers (SINDJA in its Spanish initials).  “It’s important to form alliances with the workers of different countries. That’s the only way we can face the companies. They are all coordinated.  We must cooperate also.”

Adds Abelina Ramirez, SINDJA’s secretary for gender equality, “regardless of what country we live in we have basic rights to education, to health care, to the welfare of our children.  If we unite and organize, we can win these rights.”


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.