A Skagit County Superior Court judge sided with migrant berry pickers on Thursday by ordering their employer, Sakuma Brothers Farms, to provide housing for the workers' family members.
The workers took the farm owners to court over a new policy to no longer provide housing for workers’ family members. They argued the policy was intended as punishment for workers who went on strike last year.
Like many large farms, Sakuma Brothers Farms has provided housing for migrant workers and their families during the berry season for generations. The judge said changing that tradition now, after workers have organized, appears to be retaliation for workers’ union activities, which is against the law.
Additionally, the judge said, discriminating against families with children or married couples by saying they aren’t allowed in the housing units violates state laws against housing discrimination.
Workers Celebrate 'A Very Strong Victory'
After the ruling, Ramon Torres, president of the workers association Familias Unidas, was beaming.
"I think it's a very strong victory, because nothing like this has ever happened before. In the past, people would do whatever they want with the workers, but now we're fighting back," he said through an interpreter.
Steve Sakuma of Sakuma Brothers Farms said he’s not happy with the ruling, but he will abide by it. After all, he said, it’s the middle of strawberry season and he needs workers.
"I've already given up a 300,000-pound strawberry field because I don't have enough pickers to pick my fruit," Sakuma said.
The courtroom was filled with migrant workers and community supporters. There was also a contingent on hand for Sakuma Brothers.
Outside the courthouse, Ella Mahaffey, Connie Bogel and Marsha Mercado held signs that said, "We Love Berries. Support Sakuma Brothers."
"We were all born in this valley, so we know them. We've always known them. They're a very good family. This is just totally wrong," Mahaffey said.
An Ongoing Battle
This case is part of an ongoing battle between Sakuma Brothers Farms and its unionized migrant workers.
Earlier this month, Sakuma reached a settlement agreement with workers in a different case over complaints that allege they hadn't been paid for all hours worked and were denied rest breaks. The farm agreed to pay $850,000 to bring the case to a close. Of that amount, $500,000 will be split among workers and the rest will cover attorney fees.
Sakuma also agreed to make changes to its work practices, including providing rest breaks and eliminating unpaid work. The farm owners said they agreed to settle even though they believed they would ultimately prevail, because a prolonged court case could have taken years to resolve and potentially cost millions of dollars.
The workers' attorneys said the case yielded the largest farm worker wage and hour settlement in Washington state history.