Sakuma workers back on the job, but concerns remain

By Armando Machado

A stepped-up interfaith effort continued July 30 to provide moral support for more than 200 migrant farmworkers from the three Sakuma berry fields in the Skagit Valley — workers who have walked off the job three times since July 11.

Jose Ortiz, who coordinates the Tri-County Food Bank at St. Charles Parish in Burlington, said Monday that although an agreement was reached last Thursday for workers to receive a minor pay increase in their piecemeal, berry-picking jobs, some of the employees reportedly have been receiving only part of the increase. The workers returned to work Friday, July 26, after their third walkout.

Ortiz said housing conditions, including sanitary concerns, remain key parts of the workers’ grievances. He said weekly meetings have been established at St. Charles, a place for the workers to gather and discuss their next steps; it was at one of those meetings that workers elected leaders who later began negotiations with Sakuma representatives.

“There are a lot of issues about the housing — and also with the mattresses, that they are very old,” Ortiz said, adding that the issue of unsanitary mattresses has been an ongoing concern. “They still have demands that haven’t been met.” He said the Hispanic ministry at St. Charles remains ready to provide extra food and household essentials for the workers should an extensive strike occur.

Also Monday, Franciscan Sister Christine Still of Tacoma was at St. Charles to help provide support for the migrant workers.

“I’m here as a peaceful and prayerful witness,” Sister Christine said, noting that all those on both sides “are our brothers and sisters.”

Ortiz said he has begun keeping archdiocesan administrators abreast of the situation, including personnel from the Missions Office and the Office of Adult Faith Formation for Catholic Social Teaching and Family Life.

Ortiz, Sister Christine, Protestant leaders and representatives from secular advocate groups monitored last Thursday’s negotiations, as agreed by Sakuma representatives and leaders  among the migrant workers. Sister Christine and Ortiz said this was done to help assure the meeting was conducted in a peaceful and respectful manner.

As in years past in the Skagit Valley, the support for migrant farmworkers has come in recent weeks from Catholic and Protestant churches, and from secular advocate groups from Skagit and Whatcom counties. The migrant families receive advice about their rights from the advocate groups, and moral support and prayers from the interfaith community.

Sakuma representatives have said the wages and housing conditions meet state standards, according to local news reports. Supporters of the migrant families say there need to be better standards.

July 31, 2013