Standoff in the strawberry fields

In July, Washington berry pickers went on strike. A week after their return, farm owners brought in H2A guest workers

Migrant farm workers on strike against Sakuma Brothers Farms, a large berry grower in northern Washington state, in the labor camp where they live during the picking season
David Bacon

BURLINGTON, Wash. — Over a tense two-week period in July, at the peak of the summer harvest season, almost 250 workers at the $6.1 million Sakuma Brothers strawberry and blueberry farm — one of the largest in Washington state — went on strike twice. Workers fought with the farm’s owners over wages, overtime pay, alleged racist treatment and conditions in their housing camp. They won concessions but lost on most of their monetary demands. With few resources left, they returned to the fields.

Sakuma Brothers Farms could afford to play hardball because it had an ace in the hole: It had been certified to bring 160 new workers from Mexico under the restrictive H2A guest-worker program. And the lower wages mandated for guest workers under U.S. immigration law proved to be the limit not just for the H2A workers but also for all the other pickers at the company. 

Now S. 744, the immigration-reform bill that was passed by the Senate earlier this year and will come up for debate in Congress this month, could radically overhaul and expand the current H2A program. If it becomes law, it will allow four times as many guest workers into the country each year and could depress wages for farm workers around the country. The pickers, competing with guest workers for jobs, could be forced to accept lower wages or lose the work they have been counting on.

Filemon Pineda has been picking berries at Sakuma Brothers Farms for the past three years. This spring, he made the thousand-mile journey with his family from his home in Santa Maria, Calif., to Washington.

When he arrived, Pineda was assigned a dilapidated cabin in Labor Camp 2 — temporary housing for the hundreds of migrant workers who flock to the farm during the summer harvest season. The company gave him some used mattresses, one covered in a black plastic sheet, and he bought a cheap bunk bed where his three children crowded together to sleep. He had to buy carpet samples to cover his cabin's concrete floor.

The poor conditions in the housing camp was just one of the reasons workers went on strike in July.

On July 10, worker Federico Lopez asked his foreman for a raise. He was immediately fired.


Filemon Pineda and his wife Francisca Mendoza in the dilapidated cabin that Sakuma Brothers Farms provides as housing to its seasonal laborers.
David Bacon

Incensed, his fellow pickers went on strike. Among their demands: an increase in their piece rate, from $4 a box to $6 a box — a rate that the company paid in 2004 after the workers struck that year. But the rate went back down to the current $4 per box in 2005.

The strikers organized a committee, Families United for Justice, and formulated a list of demands that included wage increases. They also asked for an hourly guarantee of $14 per hour and for overtime pay. (Neither Washington state nor federal law requires it.)  

When workers work at a piece rate, they earn according to the number of boxes they pick. If the field is bad or they don't pick fast enough, a guaranteed rate ensures that they still make a set minimum per hour. They also wanted a higher piece rate — $6 instead of $4 per box. People who pick quickly would earn a lot more.

But Sakuma management would not agree to overtime pay and would not guarantee more than $12 an hour, the wage mandated for guest workers.

That may sound like a lot for farm labor, but workers have only a few months to earn enough to support their families during the winter, when jobs are scarce and they have to live off their savings.

They did win some of their other demands: Lopez was rehired, and Sakuma agreed to improve some camp conditions.

On July 16, the workers returned to the fields. But the truce didn't last. Six days after the strike was called off, the workers accused management of lowering the piece rate from $4 to $3.50 a box.

Federal regulations prohibit employers from hiring H2A workers if a labor dispute exists at the company. Rosalinda Guillen — director of the workers'-rights project Community2Community, a key source of support during the strikes — believes that the main reason the company negotiated was out of fear that its H2A application would be suspended because of the walkouts. "That's why Sakuma negotiated," shesays.  "They had to end the labor dispute."

It was only after Sakuma Brothers Farms agreed to return to the $4-per-box rate — promising that this would guarantee the pickers a $12 hourly wage — that the strikers returned to their jobs. It was July 26. Out of 278 workers, 248 had participated in the walkouts.

Exactly one week later, the H2A guest workers arrived.

The evolving H2A program

The H2A program was established in 1986 to allow U.S. agricultural employers to hire workers in other countries and bring them to the United States. For a company to be certified, the Employment Security Department of Washington must agree that the company has tried to hire workers locally and failed. The federal government then provides the H2A workers visas tied to employment with the certified company for a determined period. If workers lose their jobs before the end of their contracts, they must leave immediately. Employers must apply for the program each year.

In the past, Sakuma Farms relied on local workers or migrants from California to fill its 700 to 800 picking jobs at the peak of the harvest. This is the first year the company has applied to bring in H2A workers. 

The farm is owned by the Sakuma Brothers Holding Co., a Sakuma-family-owned business that has maintained farms in Washington's Skagit Valley for decades.

During World War II, because the United States government put people of Japanese ancestry in camps, the Sakumas would have lost their land had it not been held in trust for them by a local rancher until the war ended. Today, the business has grown far beyond its immigrant roots and is one of the largest berry growers in Washington, where berries are big business. The company considers itself vertically integrated: It owns a retail outlet, a freezer and processing plant and a chain of nurseries in California that grow the rootstock for strawberry plants for its own operations as well as for other growers.

By contrast, Sakuma workers have few resources. Over the nine days that they were on strike, their resources were drained until many families had no food left, and the hot-dog lunch provided by local community supporters became their main meal of the day.

The striking workers felt threatened by the arrival of the H2As. Pineda said, "Sakuma says there aren't enough workers, but here we are, and he doesn't want to pay us fairly." He says they were told, "'There's the field. If you want to work, OK. If not, get out of the camp.'" Added 18-year-old striker Teofila Raymundo, "I've seen them treat my dad bad, but he comes back because he needs this job."

Sakuma justified its H2A application by saying it faced a labor shortage that led to the loss of blackberries in 2012 and strawberries this year when it couldn't find enough workers to pick them. But the farm owners were unwilling to raise wages to attract additional pickers.

Sakuma says there aren't enough workers, but here we are, and he doesn't want to pay us fairly.

"If we [increase pay], it unscales it for the other farmers," says Ryan Sakuma, who manages the operation with his father and brothers. "And we couldn't attract them without raising the price hugely to price other growers out. That would just create a price war." Sakuma says he faces pressure on prices from customers, especially ice cream companies, which keeps him from raising wages. "[They] can get berries cheaper in California… There's competition from Mexico too." He pegged his farm's wages to the H2A program: "Everyone at the company will get the H2A wage for this work."

The government sets the H2A wage state by state at a level that is supposed to prevent employers from using guest workers to undermine local wages. Washington has one of the highest: $12 an hour this year and $10.47 in 2012. In other states, the pay is very close to the minimum wage.

But the $12 hourly wage could be under threat if S. 744 becomes law. The new W visas it would create would extend the current one-year limit and allow workers to remain in the United States for up to three years. Once the program is fully implemented, 337,000 workers could be in the country at one time — almost four times as many as the 85,248 workers whose H2A visas were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2012.

States would no longer need to certify growers' claims that they had tried to find local workers, nor would states set wages. Instead, the bill would establish a national wage for various farm jobs. For the kind of work performed by the berry pickers at Sakuma Brothers Farms, that wage would be $9.64 per hour. That is $2.34 below Washington’s guest-worker wage this year and is only 45¢ above the state minimum wage of $9.19 an hour.

The current H2A program also requires Sakuma and other farms to provide housing, and the company planned to house its H2A workers in one of its camps. In the Senate bill, however, growers could give workers a housing subsidy instead, leaving them to find accommodations on their own — a difficult proposition in most agricultural areas.

The company sets the price, pays what it wants and then sends them back to Mexico. Workers have to accept whatever the company gives them.

Interest in bringing in H2A workers has grown rapidly in Washington, and some local activists suspect growers are preparing to implement much larger programs if Congress enacts S. 744. A decade ago, there were no H2A workers in Washington. Last year the Department of Labor certified applications for 7,086 workers in that state alone — more than double the 3,194 of the previous year — giving Washington the third most in the nation, after North Carolina and Georgia.

In eastern Washington in 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security forced Gebbers Farms, a large apple grower, to fire 550 workers because they had no legal immigration status. Gebbers was then certified to bring in 800 H2A workers from Mexico and 400 from Jamaica. Before filing his company's application, Ryan Sakuma traveled to the Yakima Valley, a large agricultural area in central Washington where other employers have begun using the H2A program, to hear their experiences. 

He says he's not worried about the kind of immigration audit the government did at Gebbers, but his father, Steve, said the family was worried about another part of the Senate's immigration-reform bill that would require employers to check the immigration status of all their workers, using a database called E-Verify. "We worry about E-Verify," he said. "Maybe 70 to 80 percent of farm workers wouldn't get through. And if you eliminate 70 to 80 percent of the workforce, growers are in trouble." According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, over half of the nation's farm workers are undocumented immigrants.

Guillen believes the use of the H2A program undermines the wages and conditions for workers. She worries even more about the Senate bill and congressional proposals to expand guest-worker programs. "They devalue farm work," she charges, "and view workers just as a source of profit instead of skilled people in a profession that can sustain families. Their whole philosophy is 'anyone can do it.' The company sets the price, pays what it wants and then sends them back to Mexico. Workers have to accept whatever the company gives them."

Migrant farm workers go back to work after a strike against Sakuma Farms, a large berry grower in northern Washington state, on July 26, 2013.
David Bacon

Some gains were made

One important change the strikers did win was that immigrant workers' daughters gained access to jobs checking the weight of boxes, which is easier work than picking. The company previously hired local students on summer break and wouldn’t consider pickers' daughters for those jobs, they said. "They always gave those jobs based on favoritism," alleged 18-year-old striker Marcelina Hilario. Now Sakuma has pledged to consider Hilario and others like her for the weighing jobs. (In Washington, teenagers are permitted to work in the fields during the summer break from school.)

The company also paid some of the strikers' children less than minimum wage, the younger workers said.

"One check I got came out to $148 for working for five days," said 13-year-old Rosalba Raymundo. That's less than $4 an hour for a full day of work. "I was working all day, even when it was raining," she added. After negotiations, the company promised to investigate and rectify those complaints as well.

Strikers were motivated as much by discrimination as they were by wages. Most strikers come from towns in Oaxaca and southern Mexico where people speak Mixteco and Triqui, indigenous languages that predate Spanish colonization. Bernardo Ramirez, who heads an organization of indigenous Mexicans, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, traveled from Oaxaca to support the strike. "Foremen have insulted them, shouted at them and called them burros [donkeys]," Ramirez charged. "When you compare people to animals, this is racism… Low wages are a form of racism too, because they minimize the work of indigenous migrants."

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