Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

D.C. labor activists blast fruit grower over alleged worker abuse

November 6th, 2015 | John Lett

John Lett

As early afternoon shoppers strolled sidewalks outside a Whole Foods market in an artsy, eclectic section of Washington, D.C., dozens of labor activists broke mid-day monotony by loudly calling attention to alleged injustices 2300 miles away in Washington state. “If they’re abusing workers in one place than they will abuse workers in another. An injury to one is an injury to all,” says Maria Parrotta, a young bespectacled brunette who enthusiastically joined protesters on the busy city block. “You must be concerned because they’re people just like you. You need to understand the broader picture.”

The picket was organized by the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a self-described militant tinged labor union with outspoken socialist views that was founded in 1905. The organization says it’s extremely concerned about the treatment of Mexican guest workers who are currently deadlocked in a labor dispute with management at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. The laborers there, a tightknit group of 400 berry pickers who call themselves Familias Unidas por la Justicia (United Families for Justice), became an independent union in 2013. But according to the IWW, managers at the farm have used hardball tactics to intimidate the fruit pickers, and thus, upending contract talks. “The negotiations ended up breaking down and Sakuma Brothers sent armed security guards to forcibly breakup the labor camps where the union supporters were staying, as well as their families,” says James Colgan, an energetic 27-year-old man wearing a newsboy cap, who serves as a communications representative with the Industrial Workers of the World. “They have been the subject of racist harassment, sexual assault in the fields and very serious labor conditions by working very long hours for very little pay.”

IWW chose to picket Whole Foods market because the grocery chain sells berries that are grown and picked by workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Once harvested, the sweet fruit is shipped to Driscoll Berries and then sold on shelves at Whole Foods. “We’re hoping that this information picket will raise awareness to the liberal customer base and get them to be sympathetic to the worker’s plight and hopefully urge businesses to drop the sale of the berries,” says Colgan. Armed with homemade signs, demonstrators marched in a circular motion on the sidewalk and chanted: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now,” as a curious onlookers sipped coffee and stared at the scene. “Farm workers are often the most poorly treated workers in the United States. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration,” says Colgan.

In response to the labor dispute, senior management at Whole Foods says the company is committed to a pro-working class culture and expects its supply chain to comply. “We seek supplier partnerships that share our concern for social responsibility and the environment.” Down the labor ladder, Sakuma Brothers Farms says it’s committed to ending the dispute. “We both want stability, we both want all employees to have the legal right to work, and we both want a fair wage and a positive work environment,” according to a Sakuma family spokesperson. Management at Driscoll Berries have adopted a similar position and says: “It is our commitment that people are treated with consideration and respect, that their workplaces are clean and healthy, and that employment within the Driscoll’s system provides income opportunities that meet or exceed the local standards.”

But the Industrial Workers of the World stands by its strong accusations of worker abuse at Sakuma Brothers Farms and pledges support for Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Colgan says the IWW plans to keep the heat on the berry supply chain by continuing to place public pressure on the farm’s managers, Driscoll Berries and Whole Foods. “Our organizing committee will reconvene and decide next actions,” says Colgan. “We will probably have larger pickets and bigger actions.”


This article was originally printed on Examiner.com on October 28, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: John Lett. Since 1996, John Lett has worked as a news reporter and field producer for several local broadcast stations around the United States. He currently serves as a web video producer covering labor news for an AFL-CIO affiliated union headquartered in suburban, Washington, D.C. On weekends he routinely manages production of archival footage that focuses on geopolitical rallies and protests in the District of Columbia. Some of his most recent assignments include Arab American protests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, international HIV activism on the National Mall and local immigrant outrage over African political unrest.

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