Berry pickers organize and strike in Skagit County

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on July 25, 2013 at 5:21 AM

Updated Thursday, Jul 25 at 5:41 AM

Life is much better for migrant workers now than it was generations ago. The labor camps are cleaner, safer and some people can even afford a nice television. But it's a hard life.

Workers at Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm in Skagit County showed us the conditions in Labor Camp Two. One woman sleeps on the floor with her baby and husband in a cabin that's built for six but houses 14, the woman said. Another crowded dormitory was packed with eight people, many of them children, even though a sign posted on the wall read "capacity: four."

For the second time this month, 200 Sakuma berry pickers are on strike. The movement was inspired by a worker who was fired after asking for a raise.

"We told them, 'If you fire him, you fire us all,'" said worker Fernando Martinez through an interpreter. That worker was hired back, but the troubles continued.
 
The migrants, many of whom do seasonal work up and down the West Coast, get paid for the amount of fruit they pick. They say it works out to about $350 for a 50-hour work week. At $7 an hour, it’s well below Washington's minimum wage.

Now, in what supporters call a rare and gutsy move, workers have organized. They formed an 11-man committee, sat down with their bosses and demanded $14 an hour, or $4 per box of  berries picked.

"By working together, they can counter the power of the company," said supporter Nick Mele. "It’s an important move for workers here and across the country."
 
In a show of solidarity on Wednesday, volunteers from St. Charles Catholic Church fed the striking workers roasted chicken. "If they would pay a fair wage, we wouldn’t have to feed them," said one volunteer.
 
KING 5 News has been told that Sakuma managers broke off negotiations early Wednesday morning, and are hiring replacement workers. "They told us if we don’t like the pay, we can leave," said Martinez, a negotiating committee member.
 
Sakuma Brothers, which sells its berries to high-end buyers such as Haagen Dazs Ice Cream, refused requests for an interview Wednesday, but did issue a statement through their public relations firm saying, "For three generations, our family has always sought to provide the best possible wages, and that continues today.  As farmers...we cannot set the price for our berries and we cannot pass on any increased costs. We take any complaints by our workers very seriously and we are continuing to meet with the workers in an effort to resolve our differences."

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