Skagit Co. farm workers claim retaliation after strike

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on May 12, 2014 at 5:07 PM

Updated Monday, May 12 at 5:41 PM

Workers from Skagit County's Sakuma Farms claim they're not be rehired for the summer berry picking season because they went on strike last year, demanding better pay and living conditions.

Benito Lopez recently received a letter telling him that after 11 years of working at the farm, he is not welcome to return.

"I have to pay my rent and feed my children," he said. "I'm worried about my family."

The letters say the workers violated the terms of a contract that stated they could not miss more than five consecutive days of work without a valid excuse. Sakuma is planning to hire what are known as "guest workers" from Mexico to replace those not being brought back this year.

"I was shocked," said Lopez. "I've worked there for 11 years. My family depends on that job. It's going to be very hard."

But farmers say they simply need a more stable workforce, and that's what  the guest worker program provides. Last year during the work stoppages Sakuma had to leave 750,000 pounds of berries to die in the fields.

"We want the good people to come back," said owner Steve Sakuma.

He rejects the notion that the move is in retaliation for the strike. He says he simply needs a reliable workforce to harvest his crops. Sakuma says labor issues have cost the company a million and a half dollars over the past  two years.

"They chose not to work.They chose not to finish the contract, if you want to look at the black and white of it. So, they chose not to be rehired," he said.

As for Benito Lopez, he just hopes he can keep feeding his family. "The past is the past," he said."I just want my job back."

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