Workers first organized with Familias Unidas por la Justicia last July — just before temporary guest workers arrived — and went on strike, demanding higher wages, better treatment and better housing. Formal complaints to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries brought scrutiny to Sakuma Bros. worker housing and eventually led the farm to invest $250,000 to remodel its worker cabins, according to co-owner Steve Sakuma.
Those complaints and the increased oversight that came with them led Sakuma to change its housing policies, Sakuma said. Where farm managers had previously overlooked families that exceeded occupancy limits of some cabins, they would now strictly enforce the three- or six-person limits to their cabins, he said.
With enough housing for roughly 396 individuals — still shy of its potential need for workers at the peak of the harvest season — Sakuma decided he could only offer housing to workers and not to nonworking family members, he said earlier this year.
The more than 250 workers who first organized as Familias and walked off the job last year were after more than just improved housing. They also said they were not paid fairly, were denied breaks and lunch periods, and were retaliated against for trying to negotiate higher wages.
Multiple strikes and boycotts followed, as well as mediated negotiations, but bargaining eventually stalled when the Sakumas refused to give Familias a separate contract. The last strike was sparked by the firing of Ramon Torres, the president of Familias, after farm management discovered he had been arrested in connection with a domestic dispute in one of the labor camps.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Torres was not allowed to return to work, and many workers chose to continue striking in protest.
Tensions flared again this year when Sakuma Bros. applied for 438 H-2A guest workers — almost three times the number it brought in last season. The farm also sent letters to more than 400 former workers — many of whom participated in strikes and were members of Familias — saying that if they had missed more than five days last season, they had failed to complete the H-2A contract and would not be rehired.
Familias members and advocates charged that Sakuma meant to replace the entire workforce with H-2A workers to quell labor unrest — a move explicitly forbidden by federal rules. Growers must hire as many domestic workers as are available before turning to H-2A workers.
After increasing pressure from advocate groups, as well as a series of problems with its H-2A application, the farm withdrew its application at the beginning of June, but not before Familias could get a judge to order the farm to rehire workers from last season, regardless of days they missed.
In a separate court case, former workers sued Sakuma for failing to pay wages and withholding break and lunch periods. Sakuma settled that case June 11, agreeing to pay $850,000 in back wages and attorney fees as well as changing its policies for giving workers statements of hours and wages. The farm did not, however, admit any guilt in the settlement.