Strawberries and Solidarity: Farmworkers Build Unity Around Driscoll’s Berries Boycott

Gloria Gracida Martinez was sent to the fields to pick fruits and vegetables when she was just 10 years old. She knows firsthand how demanding and dangerous the work can be. Now a teacher in Mexico, Gracida Martinez shared her memories in Spanish, sitting outside the Chicago-area La Catrina Cafe, which hosted an event about a boycott against Driscoll’s last year. Gracida Martinez is also a spokeswoman for the National Independent Democratic Farmworkers Union (SINDJA) in Mexico.

“I remember a heavy bucket of tomatoes, sometimes of cucumbers, and I remember being on my hands and knees in the dirt picking strawberries. I remember seeing other children, too. But something that really changed my life is when I saw an elderly person and it struck me. I wonder if he had spent his entire life in the fields?” she asked.

Workers on both sides of the border launched a boycott of Driscoll’s berries in 2015. Driscoll’s, a privately-held and family-owned company, was founded in 1944 and is one of the world’s largest berry producers. Workers are demanding that Driscoll’s pressure its growers, like Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state and BerryMex in Mexico, to recognize a union and come to the table to negotiate a contract.

Recently, workers in Washington state, organized through Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), won union recognition from Sakuma Brothers. However, the Driscoll’s boycott is expected to continue until workers in Mexico win recognition too.

Through union recognition and a contract, farmworkers hope to raise wages and improve conditions. Workers regularly spend 12 hours a day picking strawberries for a daily rate of about $6, according to SINDJA. Beyond pay, workers have alleged such abuses as child labor and sexual harassment.

“The simple truth is, Driscoll’s has and will continue to demonstrate leadership in the agriculture industry by facilitating initiatives and standards which support socially responsible business practices, including worker welfare,” Driscoll’s said in a statement.

“Our vision is a world in which all agriculture workers are treated with dignity, fairness and respect, and that employment within the Driscoll’s business enterprise provides income opportunities that meet or exceed local standards,” the company said.

But to the farmworkers who pick the strawberries that end up stickered with the brand’s label, “dignity, fairness and respect” takes the form of a contract between workers and growers. Boycotters believe that Driscoll’s ultimately has the leverage — and the resources — to make the goal of unionization, fair wages and decent working conditions a reality.

“People and Planet Before Profits”

Leah Fried, director of international strategies for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), helped to host Gracida Martinez’s trip to Chicago in July. The UE’s participation in the Tri-National Solidarity Alliance brought the berry pickers’ struggle to the union’s attention.

“One of the most important tasks of unions in the United States is to forge alliances with unions globally to address poor working conditions whether they’re in your industry or not,” explains Fried, whose glasses and black curly locks add to her effervescent demeanor.

When asked by a reporter whether she eats strawberries, Fried smiles and says, “I love strawberries, yes. I love all berries. Blueberries! Raspberries! Blackberries, I love them all!” She chuckles in between her berry parade and then states in all seriousness, “I don’t buy Driscoll.”

The financial impact of the boycott is not clear. Driscoll’s is a private company, not publicly traded, which means it doesn’t have to release financial details. A company representative declined to say what, if any, impact the boycott has had on Driscoll’s bottom line.

Jose Oliva, Fried’s partner and a Guatemalan immigrant, is co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a network of worker organizations and efforts across the food supply chain that are organizing for workers’ rights. Oliva explains why he is passionate about the work he does.

“It’s really about transforming this food system into a food system that’s about putting people and planet before profits,” he says.

“Their Fight Is Our Fight”

Oliva sits on a comfortable suede couch. His bright green “Troublemakers Union” T-shirt pairs with the butterscotch walls of his living room. He addresses public perceptions about unions.

“Someone reading this could say, well, ‘I’m a woman, I can vote,’ or ‘I am a person of color and I can marry someone that is not of my race.’ Those changes that affect us at a very personal level happened not because there was some gracious lawmaker that decided to give people these rights. They happened because there were organized groups that demanded those things and created that pressure for the change to happen.”

Unions are no different.

In terms of the Driscoll’s boycott, Oliva says, “Folks reading this should A) stop buying berries and B) tell the world that they’re not buying berries because of the boycott. Otherwise, Driscoll’s basically shrugs this off and says it’s a market thing or whatever, right? … For people who are so encouraged there’s a third thing that people could do, which is to get engaged in an organization that is actually actively supporting the boycott.”

One such organization is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Carlos Carrillo, a member, spoke as he stood outside of a Costco in Chicago with a group of teachers, holding signs and passing out flyers about the boycott to shoppers.

“Only together, only through a boycott, similar to the Cesar Chavez boycott of the 70’s, only together will we gain a union recognition for these workers and the collective bargaining that they deserve and that they need,” he said.

Carrillo urged young people in Chicago to participate in the boycott.

“Their fight is our fight. Our struggles here, whether it be violence or whether it be unemployment or whether it be discrimination, is the same oppression that they’re facing over there,” he said. “If we don’t help them, later they’ll come for us … When they stand, we need to stand.”