FARMER SUPPORT -- Skagit County farmers showed up on tractors and pickups to show support for Sakuma Bros. Farms during a court hearing last week. -- Photo by Carol Oglesby
FARMER SUPPORT -- Skagit County farmers showed up on tractors and pickups to show support for Sakuma Bros. Farms during a court hearing last week. -- Photo by Carol Oglesby

In an historic ruling in Skagit County Superior Court, Judge Susan Cook found in favor of unionized farm laborers, ordering Sakuma Bros. Farm, Inc. in west Burlington to allow workers and their families back into housing provided by the family farm since after World War II.
“It’s incredibly important that farm workers are actually accessing the justice system and getting justice, because we have never seen this before, this is the first time,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community, an organization which has supported union organizers since the labor unrest began at the farm in July of 2013.
According to court documents, this past April managers of Sakuma’s berry farm informed workers that non-workers would not have access to housing. Workers were also told no one under the age of 18 would be eligible to work.
“I would say that we were somewhat disappointed by the ruling,” said Steve Sakuma, who oversees the family business. “We didn’t really believe that someone would go to that level.”
The court found that “the denial of housing previously provided to the families and spouses of workers interferes with current and deters future protected concerted activities by the members of Famililas and other individuals who are or will be working for Sakuma.”
Workers at the farm formed Familias Unidas Por Justice, or Families United for Justice, after a worker complaining about wages was fired last July. The union was also protesting the farms use of guest workers through the H2A program, which allows workers to enter the United States for temporary employment jobs.
“With this ruling today, the court established that there was retaliation against workers for organizing and going on strike,” said Guillen on Thursday after the ruling. “I think they are going to find tomorrow that the farm labor camps are going to be full, and they are going to find that they have more workers than they need.”
But by Monday, farmworkers and their families, some of whom had driven from California, were told housing was not ready.
“They’ve been moving in,” Sakuma said one day after the ruling. “We just hadn’t had any family members in. People think you can snap your fingers and things can just happen,” he said referring to various regulating agencies.
Sakumas has provided housing to workers as an incentive for years. Sakuma says they are facing a labor shortage and can’t afford to house non-workers, who now must be 18 to pick.
“They pay nothing for housing, it’s an incentive,” said Sakuma, whose business depends on a migrant working population he says has dwindled due to immigration policies instituted after 9/11. “Since post World War II, our family has been doing it, and it’s evolved over time, there’s no doubt about that.”
A rash of negative publicity has followed the company since the strikes last year, with stories investigating the labor practices of the company. In June Sakuma Farms agreed to an $850,000 wage-and-hour settlement to migrant workers for unpaid wages.
Members of the Skagit farming community have rallied around the Sakumas. At the Berry Dairy Days in Burlington, growers led an “I love berries” campaign to show support for the longtime farming family.
“We just wanted to support the business,” said Amy Cable, a valley farmer, agricultural teacher and FFA advisor at Mount Vernon High School, who helped organize the campaign. “Because if there was no business, there wouldn’t be the work. They hire a lot of farm workers. They are already under so many regulations, this is just one more huge blow that could put them under.”
The group drove tractors to the courthouse Thursday in a show of solidarity. In thanks, Sakuma Farms opened a field of strawberries to the public.
“What we are against is the culture of retaliation in the agricultural industry,” said Edgar Franks, also with Community to Community. “What we are for, instead of ‘I love berries,’ is ‘I love workers.’ To me, that value system of placing products or commodities over actual people, I don’t think that is a value that Skagit Valley is made out of.”
Both Guillen and Franks come from migrant families who lived in migrant housing growing up in the Skagit County. Franks says he is perplexed by the latest actions by Sakuma since Thursday’s court ruling. Lawyers for the farm workers may file a contempt of court against Sakuma for not allowing workers and their families back in.
“It doesn’t make sense, when you claim there is a need for workers,” said Franks. “There’s a field opened for the community to pick free berries. It’s a weird situation. It’s kind of confusing.”