Familias Unidas por la Justicia: Their Historic Union Contract
Photo by Edgar Franks.
Members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), an independent farmworker union comprised of Mixteco and Triqui families, started this year’s strawberry harvest with a historic union contract.
On Thursday, June 15th, members gathered at Skagit Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall to ratify the union agreement with Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm, ensuring dignified working conditions and livable wages for the coming seasons.
The two year contract, signed by union representatives on the morning of June 16th, provides full collective bargaining rights, protections against unjust discipline, and a base hourly rate of $15 dollars per hour for all berry hand harvesters (the state of Washington’s minimum wage is $11 per hour). This crucial hourly pay provides a fair piece rate wage, contrasted with the former piece rate wage system — a system that has historically shifted the responsibility for earning minimum wages onto employees instead of companies. The piece rate wage system has allowed employers to establish inhumane production standards; these standards are the cause of many injuries, including repetitive motion injuries.
The FUJ contract, in contrast to other piece rate wage systems, includes language for the workers to be part of the decision-making process of establishing workers’ compensation per pound and the base hourly rate. The contract also establishes a grievance procedure that will allow members to resolve their contract disputes without fear of retaliation, as well as a Labor Management and Union Communications Committee (LMUCC) to informally address issues as they arise. Under the LMUCC, representatives from the union and the company will meet regularly to discuss challenges and draft a retirement plan for FUJ members.
FUJ first announced their tentative agreement with Sakuma Brothers on Sunday, June 11th, a victory after their four-year fight against wage theft and unjust working conditions. Sakuma Brothers has been accused of a variety of worker rights violations, including sexist and racist abuse from supervisors, poor work camp accommodations, and systematic wage theft, defined by the AFL-CIO as “employees being denied full compensation for their work under the law.”  FUJ has protested wage theft practices such as inaccurate paystubs, poor harvest weight documentation, and workers being forced to carry out tasks beyond harvesting (ultimately FUJ members prevailed in a class action lawsuit recovering over $550,000 in lost wages in 2014).  In addition to these violations, the company tried to prevent workers from organizing by holding closed-door and captive-audience meetings to dissuade workers from joining the union,  illegally firing union activists like Ramon Torres soon after he was elected President of the union, attempting to replace local workers with those from the H-2A program,  and employing security guards to threaten employees working to form a union.
Following a series of strikes in the summer of 2013, about 280 indigenous families, most of whom have harvested berries on the Sakuma farm for more than ten years, organized FUJ to demand livable wages, health insurance, safe housing, and the right to collective bargaining. FUJ organized their first boycott against the Sakuma Brothers after the employer reneged on labor agreements, even going on to boycott Driscoll’s when the transnational company began to pack the smaller grower’s berries, a decision that made the Washington union the subject of a global campaign.
After gaining recognition through walkouts, boycotts, marches, and a monumental lawsuit that secured paid rest breaks in the Washington Supreme Court,  Familias Unidas succeeded in bringing Sakuma Brothers to the bargaining table. Their first contract since unionizing in August 2013  represents a significant victory for FUJ, the first indigenous-led union in Washington. The farmworker-organizers have revived the spirit of the early days of the UFW, securing fair wages and an unprecedented grievance process from one of the largest growers in the state, an achievement that could signal a new era of labor relations in the Pacific Northwest. FUJ President Ramon Torres has celebrated the contract, saying:
This is a historic victory for all our members that harvest berries, they are happy to be working at Sakuma Farms with a union contract, everybody is ready to get to work, there will soon be union berries in the marketplace! 
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