Tuesday - Jul 23, 2019

The cross-border farmworker rebellion

Workers in the berry fields of the United States and Mexico have the same transnational employers. Now, farmworker unions in those two nations have begun to work together

by David Bacon

Surrounded by blueberry and alfalfa fields near Sumas, Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border, a group of workers last week stood in a circle behind a trailer, itemizing a long list of complaints about the grower they work for. Lorenzo Sanchez, the oldest, pointed to the trailer his family rents for $800 a month. On one side, the wooden steps and porch have rotted through. “The toilet backs up,” he said. “Water leaks in when it rains.The stove doesn’t work.”

His wife, Felipa Lopez, described mistreatment in the fields. “The old man [the grower] sometimes walks behind us and makes fun of us,” she charged. “He yells at us to make us work faster.” Other workers in the circle nodded in agreement.

Ramón Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, listened and then took union membership cards from the pocket of his jacket. “This is the first step,” he said. “Join the union. But you have to agree to support each other in this. If he fires any one of you, the others have to stop work to get the grower to give the job back. If he tries to evict you, you have to act then, too.”

Everyone signed the cards. They’d actually gone down to the union office in Bellingham two weeks earlier to ask for help-they’d had plenty of time to think about the consequences. After the cards were signed, they all agreed that the following Monday, instead of going into the field to work, they’d confront the grower and demand changes.

Two days later at sunrise, Torres and Edgar Franks, another union activist, joined the workers at the edge of a highway, next to the field where they’d been pruning blueberry bushes. Soon the grower, Gill Singh, drove up with his two sons. Torres gave him a letter from the union. “You don’t have the right to treat people like this,” he told the father. One son responded, “That’s true, they do have that right. But don’t we have the right to require them to work?”

Soon the workers were angrily recounting to Singh and his sons the pressure and the insults they’d endured, adding complaints about low wages and deteriorating housing. In the end, the grower agreed to fix some housing problems, to stop mistreatment in the fields, and not to retaliate against the workers for joining the union or stopping work over the problems. By then it was mid-morning, and the pruners went into the rows to begin their daily labor.

“This is how we’re building the union,” Torres says. “There are a lot of paros [small work stoppages] here all the time, and we come out to help the workers get organized.”

Familias Unidas Por La Justicia was born in 2013 out of a work stoppage like this one, when blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then mounted a series of guerrilla work stoppages over the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages. At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities up and down the West Coast to pressure Sakuma Farms’ main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll’s Inc. In 2017, Sakuma’s owners agreed to an election, which the union easily won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Farms.

Since then, work stoppages have hit many nearby ranches, and workers have successfully used them to win concessions from growers. Most of those workers are Mixtec and Triqui indigenous migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. In some cases, however, the paros have been organized by H-2A contract workers, brought to the United States under temporary work visas. In 2017, 70 H-2A workers refused to work at Sarbanand Farms after one of the fellow workers collapsed in the field, and later died.

A union contract has given Familias Unidas a support base for helping the workers in these spontaneous outbreaks. And because the piece rates for picking berries at Sakuma Farms has increased dramatically (allowing some workers to earn as much as $30 per hour) farmworkers at other farms have taken action to lift their own wages.

Job actions like these are not unique to U.S. farmworkers. In fact, the pruners’ job action seemed very familiar to two farmworker unionists from Mexico, who’d arrived in Bellingham to explore another way to give farmworkers more power: cooperation across the border. Their trip was organized by the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and the UCLA Labor Center.

“We’re very similar,” says Lorenzo Rodríguez, the general secretary of a Mexican union, the National Independent Democratic Union of Farm Workers (SINDJA in its Spanish initials), “not just in using tactics like stopping work, but in the ways we recruit workers and organize them. The way Ramón and others lead these movements gives workers the message that we can make a change, that together we can organize, together we can walk out. Above all, that we can represent ourselves.”

According to Rodríguez, the giant ranches of the San Quintin Valley employ 50,000 laborers in over 150 companies. Most of the companies, especially all the biggest ones, have “protection contracts.”

Both in Washington and in Baja California, Familias Unidas and SINDJA have few legal protections, and rely more on action by workers to force changes.

Both Sindja and Familias Unidas are worried about the explosive growth of the H-2A temporary work visa program, which creates a pool of workers with virtually no rights. In 2017, Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, and the number for 2018 will undoubtedly be much higher. Last year, about 200,000 H-2A workers were recruited nationwide and brought to the United States. This year, the number is expected to exceed 230,000.