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Dozens Of Sakuma Berry Pickers Walk Out To Protest The Firing Of A Worker

Ashley Gross
Sakuma Brothers Farms workers walked out to protest the firing of an employee.

The ongoing labor dispute at a large Skagit Valley berry farm has flared up again. Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms walked out on Monday to protest the firing of an employee who has been active in workplace organizing.

The sun beat down on the blackberries ripening in the fields, but dozens of people who'd normally be picking the fruit were instead gathered outside a Sakuma office. A Skagit County sheriff’s deputy told Cornelio Ramirez he could no longer be on the property.

“So you know, you’ve been fired. The owners request that you leave the property, OK?” the deputy said.

Credit Ashley Gross
Cornelio Ramirez, right, protests alongside Ramon Torres.

Ramirez, who has worked for Sakuma for nine years, says this summer, he was given five warnings for allegedly breaking farm rules, then he was fired. He says most of the warnings are false; he was cited for not washing his hands, for example, when he says that he did. He says the warnings were a pretext to get rid of him.

“They don’t want me to speak. Because I’ve been saying to the people: I speak for them. But the people are afraid, and I say to the people to not be afraid and to speak. That's what I say to the people in the field. And now they fired me,” Ramirez said.

The incident is the latest development in a labor dispute that started last year when workers formed an association and walked out on numerous strikes, protesting low pay and calling for a contract. A contract remains elusive, but the workers have won a couple of recent legal victories, including a class-action settlement over wage complaints.

Credit Ashley Gross
Ryan Sakuma addresses workers.

Farm president Ryan Sakuma denies that the farm singled out some workers for special discipline.

“We have a standard. We have our employee handbook, and we’re abiding by [it] and giving out warnings for any kind of violation of the handbook,” Sakuma said.

After Sakuma told Ramirez he had to leave the property, some of the workers headed to the farm’s market stand to protest.

They held signs that read,“Support Farmworker Justice” and “Whose Hands Picked Your Food?” A few shouted, “Boycott Sakuma” as some passing drivers honked their horns in support while others gave them a thumbs-down sign — an indication that people in Skagit County are divided over whether to support the farmers or the farmworkers.

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.