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Posts Tagged ‘activists’

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

Friday, November 6th, 2015

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.

Campaign Alleges Retaliation Against Strikers in Federal Building

Friday, May 31st, 2013

eidelson_100Organizers tell The Nation that four food court outlets in a federal building initially refused to let employees return to work following a Tuesday strike, but relented following protests by supporters.

The four establishments—Subway, Bassett’s Original Turkey, Quick Pita and Kabuki Sushi—are located in the Ronald Reagan federal building, one of several Washington, DC, workplaces where employees with taxpayer-supported jobs went on strike as part of the Good Jobs Nation campaign, whose backers include the Service Employees International Union. As The Nation reported Tuesday, the strikers are demanding that President Obama take executive action to improve labor standards for workers who are employed by private companies to do jobs backed by public spending. According to organizers, the one-day strike involved hundreds of workers, and forced about half of the Reagan Building’s food court outlets to shut down at some point during the day. (The Reagan Building is owned by the federal government; many of its food outlets are franchisees of restaurant or fast food chains.)

Bassett’s employee Suyapa Moreno told The Nation in Spanish that three of her outlet’s four staff went on strike Tuesday, and that when they showed up to start their shift on Wednesday, “The owner told my co-worker she was fired. So I said, ‘If you’re going to fire her, I’m not coming back to work.’” She said her manager told them that “she didn’t want to see us again.” Moreno said she believes her co-worker was targeted because management saw her as the ringleader who convinced Moreno and a third Bassett’s worker to strike.

Moreno said the workers then waited at the food court until other workers, organizers and community supporters gathered to protest the terminations. According to the Good Jobs Nation campaign, about a hundred total supporters converged in the food court to protest ten total terminations by four outlets. Once there was a big enough group, said Moreno, “We went back to talk to the owner, and she accepted us back.” The Good Jobs Nation campaign told The Nation that managers or owners from Subway, Quick Pita and Kabuki Sushi also agreed to reverse the terminations once confronted by crowds of supporters.

The federal Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon regarding the allegations, or to The Nation’s prior inquiries this week regarding the Good Jobs Nation campaign. An employee who answered the phone at the Reagan Building Bassett’s Original Turkey location early Thursday evening said that no manager was on the property to comment. A call to the building’s Kabuki Sushi location went unanswered. The person who answered the phone at the building’s Subway location said he was too busy to comment; the Subway corporation did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

Reached on the Reagan Building Quick Pita location’s phone line, a person who identified himself as a manager there said that no strikers had been denied the chance to return to work, and charged that the campaign was making workers “victims for a bigger political agenda.” He declined to give his name, and said that he was not authorized to speak for the Quick Pita company or the franchisee’s owner.

The attempted terminations alleged by Good Jobs Nation could be violations of federal labor law. As I’ve noted previously, the law generally prohibits “firing” workers for striking, but often allows “permanently replacing” strikers by filling their positions during the strike and refusing to reinstate them. But strikes that the government finds to be motivated in part by prior labor law violations, as Good Jobs Nation says Tuesday’s was, receive greater legal protection; and striking for only one day may also provide a shield against “permanent replacement.”

However, labor advocates and activists have long charged that the National Labor Relations Board’s slow process and weak penalties do little to discourage companies from firing activists. In order to deter retaliation, organizers of recent fast food strikes have arranged for delegations of supporters, sometimes including local politicians and clergy, to accompany the strikers back to work the next day. As I reported for Salon in November, activists say that an indoor occupation and outdoor picket of a Wendy’s store led management to reverse the termination of one of the participants in New York’s first fast food strike. Organizers say the same approach worked yesterday in Washington.

“Before, when workers were treated badly or fired unjustly, nothing would happen,” said Moreno. “And so the bosses felt like they could keep doing it.” Following the strike and yesterday’s showdown, she said, “Now they treat us with a little more respect, because they’re afraid that if they keep doing what they’re doing, more of this will happen.”

This article was originally printed on The Nation on May 23, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a Nation contributor and was a union organizer for five years. He covers labor for as a contributing writer at Salon and In These Times.

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