Confronted with an escalating labor dispute, mounting federal government scrutiny, and a state court restraining order aimed at protecting domestic workers, Washington State berry grower Sakuma Brothers Farms has withdrawn its controversial application seeking authorization to employ foreign workers under the federal H-2A temporary agricultural “guestworker” program. Sakuma’s application had requested approval to hire as many as 438 H-2A workers to harvest its berries this season, to effectively replace the domestic workforce that the company had employed for the past several decades.
Sakuma’s now-abandoned H-2A strategy was a response to efforts begun last year by its domestic workers to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. The domestic workers, organized as “Familias Unidas Por la Justicia” (Families United for Justice), negotiated some modest improvements, but Sakuma failed to honor its agreements, and a series of strikes and work stoppages punctuated last year’s berry harvest season.
In support of the Familias Unidas workers’ struggle, Farmworker Justice represented the workers in administrative proceedings before the U.S. Department of Labor, relating to Sakuma’s H-2A application. In these procedings, Farmworker Justice urged the DOL not to approve Sakuma’s H-2A application based on the company’s violation of basic H-2A program requirements. Critically, Sakuma’s application violated one of the program’s fundamental guarantees: employers may use H-2A guest workers only if it can demonstrate that there is a shortage of domestic workers available to do the jobs. Although more than 460 Familias Unidas workers are ready and willing to return to work this season, Sakuma attempted to deny employment to workers who participated in strikes last year. With the pro bono legal assistance of Seattle law firm Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP, Familias Unidas secured a state court restraining order prohibiting Sakuma from retaliating or discriminating against workers who engaged in worker organizing activities.
Sakuma’s withdrawal of its H-2A application came as no surprise, given the rigorous administrative review by the DOL and the state court’s ruling that ordered Sakuma to stop retaliating against the Familias Unidas workers. Farmworker Justice welcomes Sakuma’s decision to withdraw. It remains to be seen, however, whether and to what extent the company will rehire the Familias Unidas workers and refrain from retaliation. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.