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  • Edición impresa de Mayo 7, 2019.

ORGANIZING WASHINGTON’S MIGRANT FARMWORKERS

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In 2013, in Washington State, Familias Unidas por la Justicia was born when migrant indigenous Mexican blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Brothers Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then organized work stoppages for the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages.

At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities on the Pacific Coast to pressure Sakuma’s main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll’s Inc. In 2017, the farm’s owners agreed to an election, and the union won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms.

“We know this contract is going to change our lives,” says Ramon Torres, FUJ president.  “We have always been invisible people, but now our children will have the opportunity to keep studying. Its not that we want to get them out of the fields but we want them to have an opportunity to decide they want.  Our members understand that we are not just farmworkers.  We are part of a community.”
Since signing the contract, work stoppages have occurred on many nearby ranches. Most of those workers are also Mixtec and Triqui migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. Familias Unidas has been able to help workers in these spontaneous strikes. The piece rate for picking berries at Sakuma Brothers Farms has increased dramatically, with some workers earning as much as $30 per hour.  Now farmworkers at other farms have taken action to raise their own wages.

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“The wages on the other farms are much lower,” Torres explains.  “So our vision is to help form independent unions and negotiate contracts there also. Everything is led by the workers.  The purpose is to grow the union, so that all of us have fair wages.”
After winning its contract, FUJ members organized the Co-operativa Tierra y Libertad.  Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community2Community Development in Bellingham, helped workers form both the union and the co-op. 

“Today the production of food is based on how much profit a farmer or a corporation can make,” she charges.  “Farmworkers are a cost. Growers don’t invest in us because they don’t believe we’re worth it.
But she believes the culture of indigenous farm workers is a resource for developing sustainable agriculture.  “Many migrants coming to the U.S. were farmers in Mexico and Central America.  Because of the trade agreements like NAFTA, they were displaced and moved north. Many are in the caravans, and now in the detention centers in the U.S.  But they know how to grow food with no chemicals, how to conserve water, how to take care of the land. We have to organize these farmers and see them as a resource, because the corporate food system is poisoning the earth and the water. Farmworkers suffer illness from the pesticides, and broken bodies because of the pressure to work fast, in bad conditions.  The average lifespan of a farmworker is 49 years. Fourteen years ago it was 47.”

In the eyes of Torres and the workers, the co-operative is an alternative for workers to the wage exploitation they’ve suffered since coming to the U.S.  This co-op uses the tradition of mutual help that is part of the indigenous culture of the workers themselves.  “In the co-op we are educating workers,” he says.  “We want to be an example.   We do not need supervisors or managers. We do not need owners. We can be the owners - we just need land.”

Tierra y Libertad has just signed an agreement to purchase 65 acres in Everson, in addition to the two acres it is already farming near Sumas.  Twenty acres are planted in red raspberries, seven in blueberries and four in strawberries.  In addition to the handful of founding members, five more families are being trained in the co-op’s operations.  “We want a system in which we can live and buy locally,” Torres says, “where our gains stay here in the county.  At the same time we will compete with the corporations that have been making money from us.”

 

 

 

 

 


 

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