Driscoll's Workers Call for Global Boycott over Alleged Abuses at World's Biggest Berry Distributor

StoryMay 09, 2016
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Saturday marked an international day of action to boycott Driscoll’s—the largest berry distributor in the world. About an hour north of Seattle in Burlington, Washington, berry pickers have been organizing for three years at Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of the farms where Driscoll’s buys berries. Since 2013, some workers launched a series of walkouts, picket lines and lawsuits over alleged labor violations. In 2015, one of their lawsuits went all the way up to the Washington Supreme Court, where they won a unanimous decision that set a precedent ensuring paid rest breaks statewide. That same year, massive protests broke out at Driscoll’s farms down in San Quintín Valley in Mexico. Since then, Driscoll’s farmworkers have been organizing together on both sides of the border. Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener spoke to protesting farmworkers in Washington state and went inside the former camps where some of the workers lived. She also spoke to Sakuma Brothers Farms CEO Danny Weeden.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Portland, Oregon. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to another protest that happened here in the Northwest on Saturday. This was farmworkers leading an international day of action calling for a boycott at Driscoll’s, the largest berry distributor in the world. About an hour north of Seattle, in Burlington, Washington, berry pickers have been organizing for three years at Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of the farms where Driscoll’s buys its berries. Since 2013, some workers have launched a series of walkouts, picket lines and lawsuits over alleged labor violations. In [ 2014 ], one of their lawsuits went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, where they won a unanimous decision [in 2015] that set a precedent ensuring paid rest breaks statewide. That same year, massive protests broke out at Driscoll’s farms down in San Quintín Valley in Mexico. Since then, Driscoll’s farmworkers have been organizing together on both sides of the border. Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener caught up with some of the farmworkers at a Costco not far from the Sakuma fields.

RAMÓN TORRES: ¡Se puede!

PROTESTERS: ¡Sí se puede!

RAMÓN TORRES: ¡Se puede!

PROTESTERS: ¡Sí se puede!


PROTESTERS: Driscoll’s!


PROTESTERS: Driscoll’s!

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: This is Democracy Now! We’re here in Burlington, Washington, where, behind us, almost a hundred people have gathered, and people are marching on Costco to demand that they drop Driscoll’s products from their shelves. It looks like people are just about to march. And just behind us, you can see almost a dozen workers who work at Sakuma farms, which is one of the farms that Driscoll’s sources its berries from here in Washington state.

PROTESTERS: Boycott Driscoll’s! Boycott Driscoll’s! Boycott Driscoll’s!

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: The march is led by Ramón Torres, a former berry picker at Sakuma Brothers Farms. He’s the president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Families United for Justice.

RAMÓN TORRES: [translated] We have 41 committees, so in addition to this action, we’re going to have about 40 other picket lines today. It’s an international day of actions, so we’re going to have actions in Mexico also. The demand is that they sign a union contract with us and that they give us good conditions for housing and work, better salaries, medical plans, pensions, and that they remove our children from the fields. We don’t want our children working in agriculture, picking fruit and vegetables for this country, until they are at least 16 years old. That’s what we want.

GALEN HERZ: My name’s Galen. And I’m here to support the boycott of Driscoll’s berries and support the farmworker union, Familias Unidas.

MAGGIE SULLIVAN: My name’s Maggie Sullivan. I live here. I’m a Costco member. I’m a Costco stockholder. Those guys treat their employees really well. They have a lot of integrity. I think that they can do the same with the people who pick their food.

PROTESTERS: Wage theft is not OK!

FELIMON PINEDA: [translated] I am Felimon Pineda, and the people elected me as the vice president of Families United for Justice. In 2013, we decided to go on strike, because they stole from us. They stole our wages. They cheated us on the pounds of berries. They mistreated us. They required us to work in the rain. They threatened us. They intimidated us. And we were opposed to all of this. So, for these reasons, the people decided to stand up rather than stay on their knees.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: In recent years, farmworkers have been organizing against Driscoll’s not only in Washington state, but also in San Quintín, in Mexico, where Driscoll’s and other major companies source berries and vegetables. In 2015, some 30,000 farmworkers in San Quintín Valley went on strike to demand better pay and conditions.

PROTESTERS: Boycott Driscoll’s! Boycott Driscoll’s! Boycott Driscoll’s!

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: On Saturday, during the international day of action, Gloria Gracida, a representative of the San Quintín farmworkers, spoke out at a protest at a Whole Foods Market in San Diego, California.

GLORIA GRACIDA: [translated] I am here at Whole Foods in San Diego with people who are supporting the international boycott against Driscoll’s, because Driscoll’s is exploiting its workers in San Quintín, Mexico, and also in Washington state. We’re asking for your support, because workers there in Mexico are earning between $6 and $7 for 12 to 15 hours of work.

PROTESTERS: Costco, remove the berries! Stop the exploitation!

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Back outside the Costco in Washington state, Felimon explained he and his Sakuma co-workers have been coordinating with the farmworkers in Mexico.

FELIMON PINEDA: [translated] We are the same workers. We’re the same people from Oaxaca. And so, finally, we reached an agreement to work together on the boycott. We’re in charge of the boycott throughout the United States. And San Quintín will run the boycott in Mexico and in other countries, as well.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: On Saturday, Felimon, Ramón and other farmworkers took me to one of the labor camps where, in 2013, workers walked out over the pay and the housing conditions.

RAMÓN TORRES: [translated] Here we are in the fields in the red camp, which Sakuma leased on a yearly basis for the workers.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: So here’s one of the cabins, the housing units. It hasn’t been in use for about three years, but you can still get a pretty good sense of some of the conditions here. We see bunk beds with rusted bed frames, a wooden roof. You can see some of the nails exposed and some gaps in the roof. The walls are wood. There’s no insulation. Now—you know, now there are some holes in the exterior of the walls. We don’t know if they were there in 2013 or not, but certainly there’s no insulation on either any of the internal, you know, or external walls. In fact, this wall is really just a piece of plywood. Other workers say they’ve been denied housing altogether. This is Margarita Sánchez. She’s speaking in Mixteco, one of the indigenous languages of Mexico.

MARGARITA SÁNCHEZ: [translated] I went to ask for a cabin, but they didn’t want to give me one because I’m a woman and I have children. They said they want workers, not children. I’d been working for Sakuma since 2002 picking blueberries. There wasn’t a scale in the fields, and so I just tried to weigh the berries in my bag. But when I went to deliver the fruit, sometimes my bag had extra blueberries, two or three pounds more. But they wouldn’t pay us for the extra pounds. They just took them.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: In 2014, Sakuma settled a lawsuit alleging it had stolen wages and denied worker breaks. Sakuma did not admit any guilt, but paid out $850,000. Margarita’s fellow worker José Ramírez said the wages are what inspired him to start organizing.

JOSÉ RAMÍREZ: [translated] The first day we arrived to pick the blueberries, they paid us 25 cents a pound. And that day, we arrived and worked and picked for about eight hours, more or less, maybe eight-and-a-half. And many people earned $40, or even $30, all day, because the blueberries weren’t ripe and there wasn’t a lot of fruit. We arrived the next day and began to ask them to pay us five cents more, so it would be 30 a pound. And they didn’t want to pay.

RICHARD BRIM: Do you want to sit up front with Danny, and John and I will sit in the back?

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: I also spoke with Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden and with vice president of Washington operations, Richard Brim. They said Sakuma no longer leases Campo Rojo, where we were earlier this day, and that Sakuma workers are all well paid. They took us on a tour of the fields.

DANNY WEEDEN: I’m Danny Weeden, and I am the president and CEO of Sakuma Brother Farms. And right now we’re standing in front of one of our organic blueberry fields. Nothing happens around here without people. I mean, you know, life is about people. Families are about people. And I kind of see this as like a family. That family housing is right next to our offices. And, you know, I want to create that family environment, not only with our harvest workers, with all of our workers.

RICHARD BRIM: I’m Rich Brim, vice president of Washington operations for Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Washington.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: And where are we right now?

RICHARD BRIM: Right now we’re in the temporary working—temporary worker housing complex at the main office. These units are all insulated. And, of course, they have cooking facilities and running water. There are, in fact, four bunks, but only three mattresses. Because of the requirement for space, there are only three mattresses. This room can only have three occupants.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: CEO Danny Weeden, do you have a sense—I know that some of the workers have called for a $15 minimum wage. Is that on the table for the upcoming growing season?

DANNY WEEDEN: No. And—but I can tell you, is that the average harvest workers in blueberries and blackberries last season made more than $15 an hour, the average. And many made over $20 an hour. And so—but it’s a productivity-based system. And then it creates the opportunity, though, for the younger, the new workers to learn that scale and get up to those high-wage earning levels.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Do you guys have an age limit on either side for your workers?

DANNY WEEDEN: We do. So we have a—15 years is the minimum. And the reason we offer 15 years and older is that it’s because the workers, when they come in with their families, if they have a 15- or 16- or 17-year-old, they would like them to be out in the field working with them.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: But some workers said Sakuma hasn’t had a minimum age requirement and that the housing, even outside Campo Rojo, hasn’t been quite so good. I caught up with 16-year-old Alfredo Juárez and his 10-year-old brother Álvaro at a nearby park. I asked Alfredo how old he was when he first started picking for Sakuma.


LAURA GOTTESDIENER: How old are you now?

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: I’m 16 right now.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: And are you in high school?

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: Yeah, I’m a junior at Burlington.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: And how many years have you been working for Sakuma?

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: Four. It’s going to be four, yeah. And one of the challenges that comes during the summer was that sometimes I have to like leave school early. I don’t get to finish school. I remember that one day—I think it was a Sunday—where we were picking strawberries, it was raining, and it was like super cold, like the wind and stuff like that. And I was kind of feeling a little sick. It was like around 12:00. And I wanted to go home, so I asked my mom. And then she said, if I’m like not feeling well, we should go home. And then my mom told the supervisor. But the supervisor said like, "If you guys don’t get back to work, your whole—you guys all will get fired, and then you guys will find someplace to live." Like just like right away, like at the same day, you get fired and then you have to find a place to stay.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Because you were living in the camp.


LAURA GOTTESDIENER: And what was the camp like?

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: You know, it was terrible, because like you only have two beds. Like, they were connected, like back to back on each other. And it was like, their stuff, they don’t have any new stuff or anything. Like they have the same bed for like five, six years, or maybe older. Some of them have some hole in this, and some like little bed bugs and stuff like that. And then like the roof, when it rains, sometimes like water gets in. So it was pretty cold.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: What was it like—were you there also? What was it like for you?

ÁLVARO JUÁREZ: It was pretty cold. And when it was really hot inside, there used to be like water driplets dripping on our heads when we were trying to sleep in the night.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Alfredo said he and his family have been with Familias Unidas since the 2013 walkout, and that he’s been at protests ever since. But when he’s not protesting, he’s at home singing.

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: I like to sing, and then act. And, well, right now I’m learning how to play guitar. I’ve been practicing for like a month now. My career is—I want to still be part of Familias Unidas. And for my career, I want it to be like acting and singing. So hopefully that goes well and that works out.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Do you think you’re going to pick this summer?

ALFREDO JUÁREZ: I know I’m going to pick this summer. It’s like the only way I can get a job, so—and it’s the only way I can like help my family. So, yeah, I’ll be picking this summer, too, with them.

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: For Democracy Now!, I’m Laura Gottesdiener in Burlington, Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! also called Driscoll’s and asked its executive vice president of the Americas, Soren Bjorn, about the farmworkers’ call for a Driscoll’s boycott. He said, quote, "We feel it’s really unfortunate, because some of the allegations are simply not true." Bjorn said Driscoll’s was not considering dropping Sakuma Brothers as one of its growers, saying, quote, "Since 2013, when these issues got resolved, Sakuma has done nothing but to improve their operations every single year." The Driscoll’s executive vice president, Soren Bjorn, also called on the state of Washington to strengthen its worker protections, saying, quote, "From international standards, this is really weak child labor law," unquote. While Washington state allows children as young as 12 years old to work on farms, Driscoll’s says it’s recently revised its own standards, saying workers on the farms it buys from must now be 15 years old. Special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener and John Hamilton for this report.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a report on Father Dan Berrigan’s funeral. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: La Santa Cecilia, performing in the Democracy Now! studios their rendition of The Beatles’ "Strawberry Fields Forever," a tribute to migrant workers. To see their full performance, go to Yes, this is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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