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Indigenous Farmworkers Forge New Fronts for Labor Struggle in Washington State

A farmworkers union is building local and global solidarity as it fights back against big growers in Washington state.

Familias Unidas por la Justicia members join National Farm Worker's Ministry members in a march in July, 2015.

For farmworkers in Skagit Valley, Washington, the year passes in crops. In February, flower and bulb season starts. By the end of spring, it’s berry season, which continues through hot and smoky summer months and winds down in autumn. As the weather cools, the work shifts to pruning. There is less work during this part of the winter, and it is harder to earn enough money, but before long, flower season has started again, and the cycle repeats itself.

Tomas Ramon Vasquez is well acquainted with this cycle: Now 39 years old, he started working in the fields when he was eight. Octavia Santiago Martinez, now 31 years old, started when she was 13.

Like most farmworkers in Skagit Valley, they are originally from Indigenous regions of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and their first language is Triqui, not Spanish. They have lived in the United States since they were children, finding themselves in the most exploited ranks of society and bound to big industry rather than free to start anew.

Both are members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent, Indigenous-led union in Skagit Valley that is notable not only for its victories over the past decade, but also for its very existence. Of the about 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, between 4 percent and less than 1 percent are unionized. In the context of an industry increasingly dominated by multinational corporations and built on the backs of migrant labor, Familias Unidas por la Justicia may serve as a road map for organizing the workers who make this industry’s operations possible.

Familias Unidas

In 2013, by way of a difficult struggle, Familias Unidas came into existence. The movement that ultimately led to its formation was sparked when a worker — Federico Lopez — asked for a pay raise and was fired for doing so. Tired of abusive supervisors, indecent housing and menial wages, workers experienced this event as the final straw and pushed to demand representation. Since its inception, the union has made enormous gains.

Currently consisting of about 500 members, the union now has a contract with Sakuma Bros. berry company and a working relationship with Washington Bulb, two of the largest agricultural entities in Skagit Valley. Workers have also established an advisory board to monitor worker safety and have won several legislative battles.

Building on this foundation, Familias Unidas has tried to step beyond their local situation, leading them to work on a state, national and international level. In 2015, the union brought a case to the Washington Supreme Court, Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers Farms. The court’s decision ultimately made it law for workers compensated by piece rate to be given paid rest breaks. Piece rate pay (where workers are paid by the output of their labor instead of an hourly rate), has been standard in agricultural work for decades. Although it is required in Washington for agricultural workers to receive at least minimum wage, employers can pay piece rate if a worker is exceeding the quota equivalent to earn minimum wage.

Overtime pay, a right which has long been denied to agricultural workers, was finally extended to include farmworkers in Washington SB 5172 as well. Familias Unidas was directly involved with drafting the bill, and Edgar Franks, a lead political representative of the union, believes it is “one of the best [of its kind] in the United States.”

Enter Corporate Agribusiness

Yet another victory for Familias Unidas came in 2016 when the union took on Driscoll’s, the largest berry company in the world. In the produce section of almost any grocery store in the United States, berries can be found packaged in plastic clamshells sporting a yellow Driscoll’s label. Though Driscoll’s itself is only a distributor of berries, it wields an enormous amount of power over berry production, both nationally and internationally — and its reach does not exclude Skagit Valley, Washington.

Instead of growing their berries directly, Driscoll’s contracts out their production, and Sakuma Bros. is one of the 750 producers the company contracts with. Because of the interdependent relationship between Sakuma and Driscoll’s, workers in Skagit Valley decided that the most effective strategy to receive concessions from Sakuma would be to target Driscoll’s. Doing just this, workers launched a boycott against Driscoll’s that lasted three years and ultimately forced their employer to negotiate.

At the same time that farmworkers in Skagit Valley were organizing, another farm workforce in the San Quintin Valley of Baja California, Mexico, was locked in conflict with growers in its region, also suppliers to Driscoll’s. Leaders in both locations recognized their common struggle against one of the most powerful agribusiness companies in the world.

Deciding to organize in solidarity, the newly formed Familias Unidas union and the leaders of the San Quintin movement joined forces. Both parties said they would continue to boycott until both workforces received concessions.

Networking across the United States, Familias Unidas garnered the support of farmworker organizing groups around the nation to strengthen the boycott, while 80,000 workers in the San Quintin Valley held their own against Mexican security forces. At the end of the struggle, workers in both Mexico and the United States ultimately won concessions from the growers in their region.

Looking back on the struggle against Driscoll’s, Franks reflected that “it turned a small local dispute into an international one,” and shed light on the bigger picture of industrial agriculture around the globe.

Familias Unidas views Driscoll’s as only a part of a larger picture of global industrial agriculture. In the fall of 2022, they went on tour around Washington state and spoke about their disapproval of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, U.S. legislation which they feel undermines the rights of farmworkers, consolidates an already stratified agricultural system and pushes out small family farmers.

At their Seattle stop, speakers criticized Bill Gates for his efforts to accelerate a “Green Revolution” (a term that references industrialization and mechanization of agriculture) in Africa. Espousing views similar to those held by Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, Familias Unidas believes this type of agriculture is marginalizing peasant farmers and attacking biodiversity in a variety of ways, including through the use of genetically modified organisms, monoculture crops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Monoculture-based farming “consolidates power into billionaires and rich companies while all of us have to struggle for basic needs,” Franks said.

Out of the Frying Pan

In the Triqui region of Oaxaca, where many of the workers in both San Quintin and Skagit Valley are from, factional feuds and clashes between peasant militias and government-backed vigilantes have led to a state of violence that has lasted for decades, resulting in the displacement of many Triqui people within Mexico. Behind the scenes, members of the Triqui community have accused the government of manipulating the conflict to gain control over natural resources in the region, as reported by Mexico’s Contralinea.

After losing so much of their land and way of life, many Indigenous peasant communities have been forced to start anew in places like San Quintin Valley, Baja California, or Skagit Valley, Washington. Once in the U.S., basic needs are a struggle. Medical bills are a constant threat and grocery and rent costs add up quickly. Often families have to settle for disintegrating houses and trailers or share one dwelling with multiple households.

Because many workers are undocumented, there is frequently no contract. In this situation, landlords have full authority to kick their tenants out, and residents have little protection under landlord-tenant laws.

There are also the hazards of working in the fields.

“One time … I was picking blueberries and got on my knees to pick them because they were little plants,” Octavia Santiago Martinez recounted. “I couldn’t sleep all that night because I was in so much pain.”

The newly formed Familias Unidas union and the leaders of the San Quintin movement joined forces. Both parties said they would continue to boycott until both workforces received concessions.

During the first week of the strawberry harvest, she says, one’s entire body aches. Workers are “running and running the whole day” with 30-pound buckets of blueberries and strawberries back and forth to the collection area, sometimes on farms where there is no bathroom, no water and no shade.

At the beginning of the flower season, it is still winter. Virtually all of the time, workers go to the fields regardless of temperature or forecast. They work in rain, in frost, in mud, even in snow. “Our fingers get numb from the cold,” Santiago Martinez said.

Most farms in the valley are not organic, and even those that claim to be often use synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. “There are a lot of people that get sick because the company doesn’t notify us when the chemical is on the plants,” Tomas Ramon Vasquez said. Santiago Martinez described a time when she was picking blueberries that had been sprayed and got a bumpy rash all over her feet and body.

Toxic chemicals and harsh physical labor do not go without consequence. The fields tax people’s bodies over weeks, months and years, punishing those who have labored their whole lives and have little ability to repair the damage.

Solidarity Across Immigration Status

Farmworkers in Skagit Valley must also grapple with oppressive immigration policies such as the H-2A guest worker program.

The H-2A program, a federally initiated project, brings foreign agricultural workers into the United States for a limited amount of time, allowing them to work in a carefully monitored context before sending them back to their country of origin. Presented as a progressive program, it has been expanding rapidly — more than tripling in the past decade according to the USDA (2021). In reality, its effects on working conditions are disastrous.

Handing me an advertising flier for the H-2A program, Franks described why hiring this type of worker is so appealing to growers. The employers get to put a cap on wages to “control every aspect of the life of the worker” he said, including “what time they wake up, what time they go to work, go home, where they go to buy food, who they talk to.”

“Everything about your life is monitored,” he added. “If you do want to speak out or complain, you are arbitrarily fired, and because your visa is dependent on your employment, you get deported within 24 hours, which happens a lot.”

Nevertheless, six H-2A strikes have successfully occurred in the last 10 years, leading Familias Unidas to collaborate with farmworker communities in central and eastern parts of the state.

Notably, in 2017 H-2A apple workers in central Washington, and H-2A berry workers in Skagit Valley collaborated in a joint strike facilitated in part by Familias Unidas. Initiated due to concerns around verbal harassment and threats to organizing, the strike ultimately increased workers’ ability to raise grievances with their employers. In 2020, Familias Unidas similarly expressed support for apple processing workers in Yakima, Washington.

Despite federal framing of the H-2A program as a solution to the immigration crisis, Franks stated that Familias Unidas sees it “as a way for companies to get access to cheap labor,” without addressing the root of the immigration issue.

Tierra y Libertad

In the face of the many struggles farmworkers endure, there are reasons for hope. Just south of the Canadian border, a farm has been established — a worker-owned cooperative named Tierra y Libertad. Although it is its own distinct entity, the cooperative is affiliated with both Familias Unidas and Familias Unidas’s sister organization Community to Community Development. The farm is currently occupied by Ramon Torres, one of the integral founders and current board president of Familias Unidas, as well as several other individuals.

Guiding me past clusters of potted plants, Ana Lopez, a resident and co-owner of the cooperative, pointed out Nopales, cactuses common in Mexican cooking, and Chilacayotes, a type of squash used in Indigenous areas of Oaxaca. At the entrance to the farm, a handmade sign states that all berries for sale are “fresh, organic,” and “fair trade.” This cooperative, Lopez said, is about family and community.

The cooperative is small in scale. A handful of people live on the farm, while hundreds of others struggle to make a living wage on company operations. The hope is that more cooperatives can be formed in the years to come, building the precedent.

The name of the farm itself encapsulates the essence of this effort. It is bound up in decades of Mexican history, while offering a promise that is fresh and contemporary. In the 1920s it was a rallying cry initiated by the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and now in 21st-century Skagit Valley, Washington, it is once again revived.

“Tierra y Libertad, Land and Liberty,” has been the defiant call of marginalized campesinos for close to a century. These two demands are not arbitrary. For those whose heritage, identity and livelihoods are closely intertwined with the earth, freedom is an empty concept without connection to the land. And land is dead when those who work it are not free.

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