By David Bacon
October 31, 2018
Workers in the berry fields of the United States and Mexico have the same transnational employers. Now, farmworker unions in those two nations have begun to work together.
Surrounded by blueberry and alfalfa fields near Sumas, Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border, a group of workers last week stood in a circle behind a trailer, itemizing a long list of complaints about the grower they work for. Lorenzo Sanchez, the oldest, pointed to the trailer his family rents for $800 a month. On one side, the wooden steps and porch have rotted through. “The toilet backs up,” he said. “Water leaks in when it rains. The stove doesn’t work.”
His wife, Felipa Lopez, described mistreatment in the fields. “The old man [the grower] sometimes walks behind us and makes fun of us,” she charged. “He yells at us to make us work faster.” Other workers in the circle nodded in agreement.
Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, listened and then took union membership cards from the pocket of his jacket. “This is the first step,” he said. “Join the union. But you have to agree to support each other in this. If he fires any one of you, the others have to stop work to get the grower to give the job back. If he tries to evict you, you have to act then, too.”
Everyone signed the cards. They’d actually gone down to the union office in Bellingham two weeks earlier to ask for help-they’d had plenty of time to think about the consequences. After the cards were signed, they all agreed that the following Monday, instead of going into the field to work, they’d confront the grower and demand changes.
Two days later at sunrise, Torres and Edgar Franks, another union activist, joined the workers at the edge of a highway, next to the field where they’d been pruning blueberry bushes. Soon the grower, Gill Singh, drove up with his two sons. Torres gave him a letter from the union. “You don’t have the right to treat people like this,” he told the father. One son responded, “That’s true, they do have that right. But don’t we have the right to require them to work?”
Soon the workers were angrily recounting to Singh and his sons the pressure and the insults they’d endured, adding complaints about low wages and deteriorating housing. In the end, the grower agreed to fix some housing problems, to stop mistreatment in the fields, and not to retaliate against the workers for joining the union or stopping work over the problems. By then it was mid-morning, and the pruners went into the rows to begin their daily labor.
“This is how we’re building the union,” Torres says. “There are a lot of paros [small work stoppages] here all the time, and we come out to help the workers get organized.”