Sakuma gives away berries while workers wait

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on June 28, 2014 at 5:25 PM

Two days after a judge ruled Sakuma discriminated and retaliated against unionized migrant workers, the farm has opted to let the public pick some 30 acres of strawberries for free.

On its website, the farm said it’s a thank you to its supporters, and a way to keep the fruit from dying on the vine.

"I know the family," said Melba DeKok, as she filled her basket. "You feel for them because they’ve really provided a lot for this community."

The 300,000 pounds of free fruit is a sweet deal for families but it’s rooted in a bitter labor dispute. It leaves some to wonder if there are other issues at work.

"I think there’s more going on," said Melinda Suit, who was plucking strawberries with her son.

Last summer migrant workers staged historic strikes for better pay and living conditions at the farm. After losing a million dollars in crops, owner Steve Sakuma said he could only afford to provide housing to employees, not their families as he had done for many years. A Skagit County judge ruled that was illegal.

Picker and union negotiator Federico Lopez said Sakuma still hasn’t hired him back or provided housing for his wife and 1-year-old daughter. 

“We want to work, but Sakuma is giving our work away for free,” he said through an interpreter.

Sakuma has stated there simply aren’t enough workers to pick all of the strawberries in his fields, so it's better to give them away.

Lopez argues there are plenty of people in California watching and waiting to see if they can bring their families to work in Washington.

“Many people have worked here for 12 years,” said Lopez. “To be treated like this isn’t fair.”  

Sakuma has previously stated that if he has to house the workers as well as their spouses and children, while adhering to federal housing regulations, there won't be enough space for the 500 employees he needs.

Some workers have been told to show up Monday to have their paperwork processed, and there are still plenty of blueberries and blackberries to be harvested.  

The question remains: Will the two sides be meeting in the farmhouse or a courthouse?
  

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