Photography by Familias Unidas por la Justicia

Equal Voice

Wash. Farmworkers Join Union, as Labor Movement Gains Allies

September 16, 2016

Paul Nyhan
By Paul Nyhan
Manager of Storytelling

In Western Washington, a group of farmworkers overwhelmingly voted to join a union on Sept. 12, taking a step toward a union contract and boosting the ranks of U.S. union members that have been declining in recent decades.

The vote caps the end of a three-year effort by farmworkers and their new union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), to organize at Sakuma Bros. Berry Farms in Burlington, Washington. In 2013, the union called for a boycott of the farm’s fruit as part of its campaign, but suspended it when the two sides agreed Sept. 4 to hold a union vote.

“This win is a win for all farmworkers,” Ramon Torres, president of FUJ, said in a statement. “(N)ow we will be getting ready for a union contract negotiation process.”

Farmworkers in Washington state celebrate the Sept. 12 vote in which they joined a union. Photo courtesy of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

That means members of the bargaining unit will focus on issues that will be on the table when they start negotiations with Sakuma Bros., which could be within two weeks.

Those issues are likely to include health care coverage and retirement plans for farmworkers, who work in strawberry, blueberry and other berry fields.

The victory showed these farmworkers “are not only professional and skilled, they are very well organized. They are disciplined. They know what they are doing,” Maru Mora Villalpando, a spokeswoman for the union, said.

The vote also represents a small reversal in the dramatic slide in union membership over the last 60 years. Fifty years ago, 1 in 3 workers in the private sector belonged to a union, while today 1 in 20 are union members, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

This erosion of union membership has cut into workers’ pay, especially among those without a college degree, the institute found in a new report, “Union Decline Lowers Wages of Nonunion Workers.”

“This decline in union density has eroded wages for nonunion workers at every level of education and experience, costing billions in lost wages. For the 32.9 million full-time nonunion private sector women and 40.2 million full-time private sector men, there is a $133 billion loss in annual wages because of weakened unions,” the institute said in its analysis.

Historically, union contracts have helped maintain high wages by setting industry-wide standards, and a strong wage floor, according to the analysis. A “strong union presence prompts managers to keep wages high in order to prevent workers from organizing or their employees from leaving.”

As union membership has declined, however, the ability of unions to set these standards has fallen, the analysis found.

Back in Western Washington, though, union ranks grew by at least 300 new members, thanks to the new bargaining unit at Sakuma Bros. Berry Farms. The successful organizing campaign drew support not only from other unions in the region, but also community organizations that support farmworkers and labor rights.

“It was such a broad based effort,” said Lynne Dodson, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. “They needed a union there.”


Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News.  He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. 

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Wash. Farmworkers Join Union, as Labor Movement Gains Allies