The cross-border farmworker rebellion
The family of Lorenzo Sanchez and Felipa Lopez, in front of the broken-down trailer the grower rents them for $800 a month. | David Bacon

Surrounded by blueberry and alfalfa fields near Sumas, Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border, a group of workers last week stood in a circle behind a trailer, itemizing a long list of complaints about the grower they work for. Lorenzo Sanchez, the oldest, pointed to the trailer his family rents for $800 a month. On one side, the wooden steps and porch have rotted through. “The toilet backs up,” he said. “Water leaks in when it rains. The stove doesn’t work.”

His wife, Felipa Lopez, described mistreatment in the fields. “The old man [the grower] sometimes walks behind us and makes fun of us,” she charged. “He yells at us to make us work faster.” Other workers in the circle nodded in agreement.

Nicolasa Lopez Gonzalez signs a membership card for the union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. | David Bacon

Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, listened and then took union membership cards from the pocket of his jacket. “This is the first step,” he said. “Join the union. But you have to agree to support each other in this. If he fires any one of you, the others have to stop work to get the grower to give the job back. If he tries to evict you, you have to act then, too.”

Everyone signed the cards. They’d actually gone down to the union office in Bellingham two weeks earlier to ask for help-they’d had plenty of time to think about the consequences. After the cards were signed, they all agreed that the following Monday, instead of going into the field to work, they’d confront the grower and demand changes.

Two days later at sunrise, Torres and Edgar Franks, another union activist, joined the workers at the edge of a highway, next to the field where they’d been pruning blueberry bushes. Soon the grower, Gill Singh, drove up with his two sons. Torres gave him a letter from the union. “You don’t have the right to treat people like this,” he told the father. One son responded, “That’s true, they do have that right. But don’t we have the right to require them to work?”

Soon the workers were angrily recounting to Singh and his sons the pressure and the insults they’d endured, adding complaints about low wages and deteriorating housing. In the end, the grower agreed to fix some housing problems, to stop mistreatment in the fields, and not to retaliate against the workers for joining the union or stopping work over the problems. By then it was mid-morning, and the pruners went into the rows to begin their daily labor.

“This is how we’re building the union,” Torres says. “There are a lot of paros [small work stoppages] here all the time, and we come out to help the workers get organized.”

Familias Unidas Por La Justicia was born in 2013 out of a work stoppage like this one, when blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then mounted a series of guerrilla work stoppages over the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages. At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities up and down the West Coast to pressure Sakuma Farms’ main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll’s Inc. In 2017, Sakuma’s owners agreed to an election, which the union easily won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Farms.

Since then, work stoppages have hit many nearby ranches, and workers have successfully used them to win concessions from growers. Most of those workers are Mixtec and Triqui indigenous migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. In some cases, however, the paros have been organized by H-2A contract workers, brought to the United States under temporary work visas. In 2017, 70 H-2A workers refused to work at Sarbanand Farms after one of the fellow workers collapsed in the field, and later died.

A union contract has given Familias Unidas a support base for helping the workers in these spontaneous outbreaks. And because the piece rates for picking berries at Sakuma Farms has increased dramatically (allowing some workers to earn as much as $30 per hour) farmworkers at other farms have taken action to lift their own wages.

Job actions like these are not unique to U.S. farmworkers. In fact, the pruners’ job action seemed very familiar to two farmworker unionists from Mexico, who’d arrived in Bellingham to explore another way to give farmworkers more power: cooperation across the border. Their trip was organized by the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and the UCLA Labor Center.

“We’re very similar,” says Lorenzo Rodriguez, the general secretary of a Mexican union, the National Independent Democratic Union of Farm Workers (SINDJA in its Spanish initials), “not just in using tactics like stopping work, but in the ways we recruit workers and organize them. The way Ramon and others lead these movements gives workers the message that we can make a change, that together we can organize, together we can walk out. Above all, that we can represent ourselves.”

Lorenzo Sanchez denounces the terrible condition of the trailer the grower rents to him. | David Bacon

SINDJA is a new union for farmworkers in the San Quintin Valley, the agricultural center of Baja California. It also was the product of action by workers in the fields. In 2015, thousands of farmworkers in the valley stopped work to demand better wages. Strikers were beaten and even shot by police. In the end, they convinced the government to raise the minimum wage in Baja California for farmworkers.

Out of that upsurge, workers organized SINDJA, and with the help of other progressive Mexican unions successfully pressured the government to give it a “registro”-the legal right to exist and represent workers.

Abelina Ramirez, SINDJA’s secretary for gender equality, who accompanied Rodriguez to Washington state, says, “The situation in Washington is very similar to ours, especially for women-to their work and exploitation, and the bad wages. We can identify with what we’ve seen. The laws here seem a little more fair than they are in Mexico, but in both places, we can’t hope for the government to come in and solve our problems. As workers, we have to do it ourselves.”

According to Rodriguez, the giant ranches of the San Quintin Valley employ 50,000 laborers in over 150 companies. Most of the companies, especially all the biggest ones, have “protection contracts.” These are agreements with company-friendly unions that have ties to Baja’s conservative state government. Workers have no choice in these arrangements and often have no knowledge that such unions or their contracts even exist. Instead of helping workers raise wages, these “charro” unions help enforce a low-wage environment designed to encourage foreign investment.

Both in Washington and in Baja California, Familias Unidas and SINDJA have few legal protections and rely more on action by workers to force changes. The San Quintin union has active workers in many companies, called “delegados.” When an incident of abuse takes place, they meet with the union’s leaders. If there is enough support in the crews for a job action, then workers stop work to demand changes.

“Our situations in Baja and in Washington are somewhat different,” Rodriguez says. “But the most important thing we have in common is the people. The big majority of the people working here come from the same places, the same towns we come from. Even the same families. And wherever we go the exploitation is the same. That’s what we have to focus on in order to change things.”

To Torres, the leader of the Washington union, the network among indigenous migrants often makes building a union easier. “I think this comes from the culture of their [Mixtec and Triqui] towns because it’s not that difficult to organize the workers in spite of not having laws in our favor. The majority of our members come from Oaxaca and Guerrero-Triquis and Mixtecos. Many of our members have family in San Quintin. When they went on strike there [in 2015], we knew what was happening because there are so many families with relations there, who were participating in their movement.”

Moreover, workers in Mexico and the United States often have common employers. “The companies are the same,” Rodriguez says. “Driscoll’s, for example, is here in the U.S. and in San Quintin, as well as other countries. There are a lot of other transnational companies. Because of these similarities, it’s important that we form alliances with the workers of different countries to make our struggles stronger. That’s the only way we’ll be able to face the companies. They are all coordinated. We have to realize this.”

The workers involved in the strikes at Sakuma Farms became the core of local groups that picketed the stores selling Driscoll’s berries, in the long effort to win the union contract. Strikers also traveled to Oregon and California to set up other boycott committees with students and other unions. At the same time, the fledgling union in San Quintin declared its own Driscoll’s boycott. The Reiter family, which owns Driscoll’s, also owns the largest berry grower there, MoraMex. Driscoll’s distributes MoraMex’s berries.

Once the contract was signed at Sakuma Farms, however, Familias Unidas por la Justicia had to agree to end its participation in the Driscoll’s boycott. SINDJA continues to support it. “They have a contract with Driscoll’s and we are promoting a Driscoll’s boycott,” Rodriguez says. “But we can compare our experiences in ways of organizing workers. The way they do things here in the U.S. could help us. And some of the things we do in San Quintin could be implemented on this side of the border. So cooperation could benefit us a lot.”

Encouraging the participation of women is one area for such cooperation. Both unions have trouble encouraging women, who often make up the majority of the workers, to become active. “Women don’t just have a double job,” Abelina Ramirez explains. “We have a triple job. We are the first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. We don’t just take care of the family-we produce economically for all of society.”

Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican union, the National Independent Union of Farm Workers | David Bacon

Thousands of women participated in the 2015 San Quintin strike, she says, but afterward, when the organization of the union began and leaders were trained, few women participated. “Really, there are only two or three trying to jump over those walls of ignorance, lack of time, and machismo,” she says angrily. “Women aren’t just good for serving children and husbands. Our world of farmworkers has ignored and failed to recognize what is possible. It has to be everybody’s decision, not just women. It’s important for the men to offer support and help in the home so that we can participate and get involved in the work of society and in social struggle.”

Both SINDJA and Familias Unidas are worried about the explosive growth of the H-2A temporary work visa program, which creates a pool of workers with virtually no rights. In 2017, Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, and the number for 2018 will undoubtedly be much higher. Last year, about 200,000 H-2A workers were recruited nationwide and brought to the United States. This year, the number is expected to exceed 230,000.

“Many of our countrymen are coming through this program,” Rodriguez says. “Many of them don’t have good food. They get abused. The company controls them completely and the workers can’t defend their rights. The companies are the ones who get the visas for these workers. The workers can’t raise their voices, and if they do, the companies threaten them and blacklist them to prevent them from returning the following year.”

Torres and Franks have helped Washington’s H-2A workers organize a number of strikes and protests in the last two years, despite the challenges such workers face. Employers, says Torres, “don’t tell them where to get medical attention, or even where to get a bus so they can move from one place to another. If there’s an emergency, they don’t know what to do. So if they can get this knowledge in their hometowns [in Mexico], it will make it easier for them to organize here.”

Edgar Franks (l), an organizer with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, supports a worker who complains about bad treatment to the grower, Gill Singh, and his son. | David Bacon

Recruitment from San Quintin is rising quickly, which has an impact on the ability of SINDJA to organize. “Many workers who have participated in the strikes and social movements in Baja have been blacklisted,” Rodriguez charges. “No company will give them work. So then they’re presented with the possibility, through H-2A, of coming here.” The difference in wages between the United States and Mexico is also a factor, particularly for those who can no longer work in San Quintin. “A farmworker with a stable job in Baja earns 1,500 pesos [$77] a week, but that’s not enough in Mexico to pay for the most basic needs for a family of four or five people. If they come to the U.S., where the minimum wage is $11 an hour, for them, it’s better. So of course people take advantage of that opportunity.”

That can also be an opportunity, however, for those workers to become part of organizing efforts in the United States. “It would help us to know who’s been active in the movement in San Quintin,” Torres says. “If we could identify those people, it would be much easier to take action when the workers aren’t given breaks or lunch, or if there are other violations.” Rodriguez adds: “Many of the people coming are members of our union. Some are even in the union executive committee. It’s important to have contact with them. Then when they begin to organize, we will know who will help them and give them support. We should prepare them for what they’ll find here, and we should organize these H-2A workers.”

“We have basic rights,” Ramirez says, “to education, to health care, to the welfare of our children regardless of what country we live in. We produce what the whole society eats and drinks. So this work should be recognized and well paid. And we’ve discovered that if we unite and get organized, we can achieve these things.”

Torres agrees. “It was very important that Lorenzo and Abelina came. We can accomplish a lot together.”

This article originally appeared in The Reality Check.


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.