Connecting the field to the grocery store proved to be the best means to achieve labor gains for migrant farmworkers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., according to the documentary “Food Chains,” which will screen in Seattle on Jan. 29.
Time will tell whether the model is replicable for other farmworkers, such as the berry pickers who launched the “Boycott Sakuma Bros. Berries” movement.
The film focuses on the formation of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their efforts to improve their working conditions.
In the beginning, paychecks for the tomato pickers sometimes amounted to no more than $42.87 for a 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. workday. Initially, they tried to put pressure on farmers to raise the pay.
Similarly, Sakuma boycott organizers are trying to secure a contract with better pay and working conditions.
Skagit Valley workers on strawberry farms had to work frantically with no breaks in order to pick the amount of berries necessary to fulfill their quota, according to five years of research from medical anthropologist Seth Holmes.
At 30 cents a pound, farmers must pick 320 pounds a day, but many farmworkers aren’t able to pick more than 150 pounds, according to Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union formed by the workers of Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit Valley.
Workers began walking off the field during the 2013 season with complaints about wages, working conditions and the farm’s use of the federal guest worker program. Familias Unidas por la Justicia then filed a series of lawsuits with the farm.
In June, owner Steve Sakuma settled one suit, agreeing to pay $500,000 to 1,200 workers in a class-action lawsuit over pounds of berries for which the workers claim they were not paid. It is the largest farm worker settlement in state history.
A second lawsuit filed in Skagit County, in which a judge also ruled in favor of the farm workers, involves a number of “incidences of retaliation against the workers for their union activity,” explained Andrea Schmitt, an attorney for Familias Unidas por Justicia.
Due to the 2013 strike, the Sakuma Brothers farm said it would not hire anyone who missed at least five days of work in a row and also stated that children would not be allowed in their housing. Later, it also attempted to limit visitors to the worker housing in order to hedge off union activity.
In the end, all of these were ruled to be unlawful, “but that doesn’t mean that the workers or the union are satisfied with the way that the farm has treated the union or are satisfied with the terms of employment that they have,” said Schmitt. “Those issues will come up in the future.”
One major difference between the Sakuma Brothers boycott and CIW activism is whom they are asking to change. After six years of trying to get farms to change, the coalition began focusing on the end of the food chain, starting with Taco Bell in 2001.
Essentially, the farm workers in Immokalee realized that farms didn’t set the prices. Grocery stores and restaurants decide what prices they think consumers will pay, and farmers must find a way to efficiently grow within those parameters.
In response, the CIW created a Fair Food labeling system, which included a pay bump of one penny per pound more in addition to a code of conduct meant to eliminate forced labor and sexual harassment on the job.
The workers went on strike and picketed in front of Publix supermarkets headquarters to push a labeling system agreement.
Publix still hasn’t signed an agreement with the CIW, but others in the industry started to concede. Burger King, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, Walmart and Whole Foods have all agreed to sign onto the Fair Food program.
Since its beginning in 2011, the program has funneled $11 million in extra wages to workers.
Could we see something like this in Washington someday?
Perhaps. Judge Laura Safer Espinoza, executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC), spoke at the New York premiere of “Food Chains” in November calling the film a “prequel” to a story continuing to develop in the fields.
“It’s a partnership between workers, buyers and growers, and all of these partners have made an unprecedented investment in transforming an industry and making it into one of the best workplace environments in agriculture,” she said.
Like the CIW, the Sakuma Brothers’ boycott started with strikes. But while the workers in Florida waved their signs at corporate buyers of tomatoes — their next goal is getting filmgoers to publicly pressure Publix, Kroger’s and Wendy’s — the Familias Unidas has only lodged their formal complaints so far with one farm: Sakuma Brothers’.
And when it asked consumers to boycott Sakuma Bros. Berries, if anything, response indicates that some people would pay more for fair food.
This is good news for the FFSC, which is planning to expand beyond Florida’s tomato industry.
Thanks to the CIW, the path may already be lit for social activists to ensure Washington berries are written into the sequel of “Food Chains.”
“Food Chains” can be viewed on iTunes, Amazon or GooglePlay. Seattle Against Slavery is hosting a screening at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 29 at the SIFF Film Center near Seattle Center. The event must get at least 76 attendees in order to be screened.
Visit Tugg.com to reserve seats for the Jan. 29 screening.