Update: After a four-hour meeting with owners of Sakuma Bros. Farms, striking workers reached an agreement Thursday morning and plan to return to work Friday.
Hundreds of largely indigenous farmworkers in the Skagit Valley of northwestern Washington went back on strike this week after negotiations with farmowners failed to reach agreement. The striking workers are protesting for better pay and respectful treatment by supervisors as well as against plans to bring in guest workers.
About 200 workers, mostly Triqui and Mixtec from southern Mexico, rallied Wednesday morning in a labor camp on the berry farm where they work. These workers say that the plans to hire some 160 guest workers will cut the hours of those who have been working there for the entire season and will lead to differential pay rates for the same work. â€¨â€¨
Their list of grievances also includes racist treatment of indigenous Mexicans by certain supervisors, lack of sick leave, and unfair firing of one particular farmworker. â€¨â€¨
These issues are not new. â€¨â€¨
In the mid-2000s, as part of my field research as an anthropologist and physician, I lived in a labor camp and picked berries on a large family farm in the Skagit Valley. Then, as now, there was a strike of indigenous Mexican farmworkers with a very similar list of demands.
What should we learn from these two Washington State farmworker strikes almost a decade apart? â€¨
Although most people do not tend to think of the Pacific Northwest in this way, the region is an important site of migrant farm labor, especially of indigenous Mexican people. The Department of Employment Security (DES) recently estimated that Washington State has a peak of 90,000 migrant workers over the course of the summer and fall, when pruning and harvesting take place. Also, despite Washington State having one of the highest minimum wages, the DES estimates that farmworkers earn an average of only $8,600 per year, far below the average for workers overall at $38,300.
Many of the migrant farmworkers in Washington and Oregon are indigenous Mexicans, especially Triqui and Mixtec people from southern Mexico. Unlike U.S.-born or mestizo Mexican farmworkers, indigenous workers tend to have less desirable jobs with less pay and live in less comfortable conditions on the farms they work. â€¨â€¨
While language barriers in both English and Spanish present their own problems, racism is a significant factor in these disparities. On the farm, one often hears indigenous farmworkers being called such things as "stupid Indian," "donkey," or "dog" in Spanish. These same individuals, it should be noted, plant, prune and harvest much of the prized fruit and wine from the Pacific Northwest. Their presence in the region contributes significantly to the local economy. â€¨â€¨
But despite these contributions, the labor rights of indigenous farmworkers and farmworkers in general in the Northwest are not well established. It is important to note that the right of farmworkers to organize into unions in Washington is not as protected as it is in California under that state's Agriculture Labor Act. In addition, many other legal protections applied to workers in general do not apply to agricultural workers (for example, agricultural workers can be younger than those in other industries and can work 7 days a week in Washington State without being paid overtime). Finally, those labor protections that are in place are not well enforced in agriculture. â€¨â€¨
At the same time, agriculture is more dangerous than most other professions, with a fatality rate approximately five times that of workers overall. Given the strenuousness and danger of the work, it is important to support labor protections and the right to organize for all agricultural workers. Simultaneously, it is important to support Northwest farm owners, who can feel caught between a desire to do the best for their workers and a fear of bankrupting their entire farms as they compete in an increasingly harsh global economic system. Indeed, many of these farmers have watched neighboring farms fail. â€¨â€¨
Perhaps most importantly, both today's farmworker strike and the strike in the mid-2000s speak to the need for fair immigration reform. Notably, the majority of farm and nursery owners (including the owners of the Skagit Valley farm), known collectively as the Agricultural Workforce Coalition, support immigration reform in order to help secure a more stable workforce that does not have to cross a dangerous border only to live in fear of deportation. â€¨â€¨
For these reasons, it is critical that Pacific Northwesterners stand strongly on the side of indigenous Mexican farmworkers while also supporting local farmers in today's economy. Labor protection for all agricultural workers and fair immigration reform can only ensure the good of the region's people, food, and economy.
Seth Holmes is Martin Sisters Endowed Chair Assistant Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at UC Berkeley and author of the recent book, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States