Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Berry Pickers Sue Sakuma Brothers Farms, Allege Retaliation After Last Year’s Strikes

Bellamy Pailthorp
FILE - Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms are seen at work.

Editor's note: The story has been updated to clarify that the berry pickers formed a workers' association. They did not form a union by holding an election under the National Labor Relations Act.

Berry pickers who went on strike at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Skagit County several times last year have filed a suit against the company, alleging retaliation. The workers say Sakuma has blacklisted many of them from working this summer as payback for their walkouts.

Every year, families of migrant workers originally from Mexico come to Skagit Valley to pick strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Most of them are from indigenous tribes in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Last year, the workers grew angry over the company’s per-pound compensation. More than 400 of the farm’s workers formed a workers' association, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and went on strike several times. At the same time, Sakuma brought in about 70 guest workers from Mexico under H-2A, a special program designed to fill a labor shortage.

Now, Sakuma has told many of the Familias Unidas workers that they had unexcused absences during the strikes last year, and, as a result, are no longer eligible to work. The farm has applied to bring in guest workers instead.

But Kathy Barnard, an attorney working pro bono to represent the workers' association, says the workers’ right to organize is protected under Washington state law, and that the company is interfering with that right by disqualifying them from work.

“Everybody wanted to come back and continue to work there, and continue the struggle for better working conditions and a collective bargaining agreement,” said Barnard.

The owners of Sakuma Brothers Farms didn’t return calls for comment. But on the company's website, the owners argue that at a guaranteed $11.87 hour, the farm’s wages are among the highest in the industry.

The owners say they’ve suffered a shortage of workers that’s left almost 900,000 pounds of berries unpicked over the last two years. They say they’re being unfairly targeted by union organizers who oppose the guest worker program.

The dispute is becoming a more pressing issue because the strawberry harvest begins next month. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.