What can Sakuma workers on strike learn from ‘Food Chains’?

Migrant farm workers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., where advocacy led to a Fair Food agreement with major food chains. (Still  from FoodChainsFilm.com)
Migrant farm workers in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., where advocacy led to a Fair Food agreement with major food chains. (Still from FoodChainsFilm.com)

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 Immokalee, Fla., farm workers realized that farms didn’t set the prices. (Still from FoodChainsFilm.com)

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.


  1. What is the fair wage for farm labor? Shouldn’t the native people decide the fair wage? When the US federal government works with corporations to flood the labor market with imported labor they are commanding the labor supply and thus commanding wages. Why do we tolerate this at all?

    We should end the practice of importing labor and let the native labor market dictate the native labor supply. That is really the only just and sustainable means of farming.

  2. It is crucial to learn the whole back story to why farmworkers are here in the first place. Not only is there a long history of farmworkers doing the hard labor that few “natives” will do, but policies by multinational corporations, thru NAFTA, dissolves borders for mega profiteers. The US flooded the Mexican market with cheap genetically modified corn in the early ’90’s ruining nearly 2 million Mexican farmers forcing them to leave their homes to seek work north. Meanwhile, huge multinational mining and logging corporations have pillaged land and resources also forcing Indigenous residents to head north. To make matters worse, the drug wars have done more to serve corporate interests by facilitating massacres and terror by cartels whose guns and training (such as that received by the Zetas from US special forces) also come from the US. Then the cartels supply deadly drugs to the US. Listening to the stories of the people who come to pick much of the food most of us eat is crucial. I know only a small part of the whole story, but i recognize when injustice is in place. Education and action can do wonders to change situations such as this. Anyone doing very hard labor deserves to be well paid and treated with respect. This kind of injustice has continued for way too long. It must be changed.

  3. Was there any outreach to the members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia regarding this issue? It seems patronizing to say what local farm workers need to be doing to advance their cause. Familias Unidas while fighting for a contract at Sakuma Bros. Farms, are also setting precedent by winning legal cases that benefit all farm workers in Washington State. While the CIW model is making gains for the CIW, it still a model and label that is a market based solution and does not address other concerns that affect farm workers such as pesticides, union organizing, or even addressing the use of H2A labor. I don’t see how the Fair Food program is creating an alternative to the conventional and industrial way fruits and vegetables are currently produced. It is also an unfair comparison when you take into account that CIW has been active for 20+ years and expect the same gains from Familias Unidas who have only existed since July 2013 and is the only union in Washington State that is organizing farm workers since the Chateau St. Michelle workers won their contract in the 1990’s. It is great to see that the CIW is working on a solution that benefits the workers in their area, but because of their success it does not mean that all farm workers should apply it because every circumstance is different and at the end of the day only Familias Unidas por la Justicia and their members can decide what is best for them as a Union and community.

  4. It’s odd to me that this article assumes that “farms [don’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,” and that these prices, across the board, without regard to the particulars of the situation, put hard constraints on what farmers can pay to their workers.

    It is also factually incorrect to frame this as though Familias Unidas Por La Justicia and their allies have not also reached out to grocery stores and large customers of Sakuma’s. The boycott officially includes Sakuma’s main customers, Haagen Dazs and Driscoll’s, and a central component of the boycott activity has been to reach out to grocery stores, inform them of the boycott and the reasons behind it, and to encourage them to respect the boycott (quite a number have, and this includes pulling products made with Sakuma, such as Driscoll’s). The boycott has involved grocery stores, consumers, and industrial customers of Sakuma’s from the very beginning, so it is odd to see the labeling approach being sold as some kind of way to involve groups in the struggle who have already been involved from the very beginning.

    The CIW is free to take the approach that they believe will work best for them, and I would not dream of discouraging them from pursuing labelling if that meets the needs of their struggle. But it is also the case that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to labor problems, even across different firms in the same industry/sector, and it seems strange to assume that the approach that the CIW is taking is the one that FUJ should take, even in spite of the various differences in their respective struggles.

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