Felimon Piñeda, vice president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent union in Washington state, organized to demand better pay and working conditions for berry pickers, tells David Bacon about his personal journey as a field laborer in Mexico and the US.
Felimon Piñeda is vice president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the independent farm workers union in Washington State. He was one of the original strikers when the union was organized in 2013. The union, together with the union of striking farm workers in Baja California, Mexico, has organized a boycott of Driscoll’s Berries, the world’s largest berry company. They demand that Driscoll’s take responsibility for the conditions and violations of labor rights by the growers whose berries they sell. Piñeda describes the life of a farm worker producing Driscoll’s berries, and his own history that brought him into the fields of Washington State. He told his story to David Bacon during an interview in Linden, Washington.
Our town in Oaxaca is Jicaral Coicoyan de las Flores. We speak Mixteco Bajo. I am 33 years old, but I left at a very young age. In 1996 I got to San Quintin [in Baja California] with my older brother. After four nights in Punta Colonet, we found a place to stay in a camp. There were a lot of cabins for people and we stayed there for six months. We planned to go back to Oaxaca afterwards, but when we’d been there for six months we had no money. We were all working — me, my sister, my older brother and his wife and two kids — but we’d all pick tomatoes and cucumbers just to have something to eat. There was no bathroom then. People would go to the bathroom out in the tomatoes and chiles. The children too.
Another man living there, who spoke another dialect of Mixteco, rented us a little house. It was one room, very small. We were there a year. We were getting home at five in the evening and the children were all eating their food cold because we couldn’t make the stove work. Then my brother said we should buy a plot between all of us, to give us a place to live. So we paid one payment, and then another. My brother is still living there, and his children are grown up now. His oldest son is 22 or 23. My niece now has kids.
In Punta Colonet life was very hard. Work was always badly paid. You had to work a lot for very little. In 1996 the wage was 45 pesos. In 2002 I worked three months there again, and in 2005 I worked almost a year. The bosses paid about 100 pesos. But the food was cheaper then. Maseca [corn flour] cost 55 [pesos]. We were not living well, but earning enough to afford it. A soda then cost five pesos. Now it costs 12 pesos.
I lived in Punta Colonet two years, and then, because of our great need, I had to begin coming to the US. I worked in the tomatoes in Florida, where it was very hot. It was very hard work, because they have a trailer for the tomatoes, and I’m short. You have to lift the bucket full of tomatoes to about nine feet. The person on the trailer grabs it and empties it, and then hands it back. I couldn’t do it, and I had to stand on something, and the bucket weighs more than 30 pounds. It was very hard, and I did that work for a year-and-a-half. In San Quintin I picked tomatoes too, but it wasn’t as hard.
Recently, we’ve seen the movement grow in San Quintin — the Alianza de Organizaciones Nacional Estatal y Municipal por la Justicia Social. They’re defending the people. To me, it’s very important that there’s someone willing to defend people. The political parties aren’t interested in what’s happening to us at work. I don’t know how the Alianza got started, but I hear they’re suffering a lot from threats by the companies, threats from the government. The rich and the bosses have bought the government. They pay the police, who then shoot at the people. It doesn’t matter if they’re women or children. That’s the worst thing I’ve seen in the San Quintin Valley.
At some point in the future, I’ll be going back to Mexico. With the threats they received, that could affect me too. For that reason I’m very grateful for the movement they’ve organized. For my part, I want to send my greetings to all the leaders in San Quintin. In 2013 Sakuma Brothers here in Washington state threatened us also, because of the movement we organized. They threatened us with the police and hired consultants and guards. Their purpose was to get rid of our union. Thanks to the union we’ve organized here, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, we stayed firm, and the company wasn’t able to get rid of us. We continue to struggle.
That’s why I’m so interested in the struggle going on in the San Quintin Valley. When I heard they’d gone out on strike I spoke with my brother and asked him for the phone number of the radio station there. Then I spoke with them and got the number of Bonifacio Martinez from the Alianza, so that we could communicate with the leaders.
It seems they arrived at an agreement on the wages. But after they got an answer from the government last year, I understand that the governor went back on his word, and so did the bosses. So then they started a boycott of Driscoll’s, the company that distributes a lot of berries from San Quintin. It’s been hard to keep in communication, but we haven’t lost touch.
They know something of our struggle here in Washington state. Our movement started on July 11 in 2013, the first day of our strike at Sakuma Farms. Sometimes the struggle has been very hard. Sometimes we feel tired. But then we recover our strength and we continue. And we continue with the help of a lot of unions, reporters, supporters of the boycott. And we’re making progress.
In 2013, at one point, we were negotiating with the company to improve the working conditions for all the workers at Sakuma Brothers. Sakuma signed an agreement and said he’d respect it, but after two weeks he broke it. That was when we started our boycott, and it is growing every day. Sakuma sends his fruit to Driscoll’s in Watsonville. In 2013 I said to the compañeros that we had to go to Watsonville to bring our boycott there. I thought that if Driscoll’s saw the people there it would put more pressure on the company.
The boycott kept growing and Driscoll’s felt the pressure. Finally the company called one of our supporters and said they wanted to talk about how to get the boycott stopped. She said they had to talk with us. So last year on May 8 we went to Driscoll’s office in Watsonville. I thought their warehouse would be small, but there were two very big buildings. Everything there was Driscoll’s.
We started to talk about why the boycott started. At the beginning they put a big bowl on the table with strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. They offered them to us and asked us to try some. We said, how can we try some if we’re boycotting them?
We were there almost a day. They said they couldn’t force Sakuma to sign a contract. We said, OK, the boycott will continue until we get a union contract. This year Sakuma has said he wants to negotiate with us, but we’ll see what happens. Sakuma now has a gringo who works with them who’s supposed to be good at working in places where there are collective demands and problems.
Last year they were paying $10 an hour, which they say is a lot. But although they pay by the hour, they demand 50 pounds per hour to get $10. For 5 pounds more there’s a bonus of 1.50, or 11.50 an hour. But only the workers who work fast can get that…. Since 2013 the weekly pay has actually gone down, in both strawberries and blueberries. Both last year and this year the people have walked out on strike because they didn’t agree with the wages.
When the workers struck last year, even though I was working at another company I went out there. I didn’t want to leave the Mixtec people by themselves — they’re my people and they chose me as vice president of the union. I had to travel from far away to get there, but there were still about 250 people waiting for me. People said we had to do something, so we went to a field where people were still working. Those workers said the pay was no good, and they left the field too.
When we demanded a collective bargaining agreement the supervisors said they wouldn’t discuss it. Then they sent in the police. The police asked to talk with me, and said I wasn’t working there. Alfredo Juarez from our comité [committee] said I had a right to be there because I was the union vice president. The police said they were going to arrest me. So the people asked, are you going to arrest us all? The police didn’t know what to say.
Finally the police said that if we didn’t move out of the field, into a public place, they’d have to do what they came there for. So the people said, OK, and we all left the field and went to the Costco supermarket in Burlington to demonstrate for the boycott. The next day the company bought burritos for everyone at work.
This year there have been more strikes like this, and more boycott demonstrations. That’s why the company says now it wants to negotiate with us.
Talking to Bonifacio, I asked them to do a boycott also — us in the north and them in the south. That way we’d put more pressure on Driscoll’s. We talk about the tactics we use and I told him about our history. He said Driscoll’s and the Alianza had to go to the government to ask that the wages get raised. I think that’s no good. The government has its role, but Driscoll’s has to talk with its growers, like BerryMex, and ensure that they’re paying the workers well. That’s what we told Driscoll’s. We’re not going to stop the boycott until the day we sign a contract at Sakuma. Same with Driscoll’s and BerryMex.
I think the idea of an independent union in San Quintin is the best way to do it, with a direct contract. The farm workers of San Quintin have been suffering for over 20 years. Hunger wages are the reason why the people went on strike. They’re doing a very good thing. But I think it’s better to sign a collective agreement with the companies. The government is not the owner of the farms. Better to force the bosses to pay. They’re millionaires. The companies have the main responsibility to pay the workers well. We are demanding the same things both here and there, and the company is the same, Driscoll’s.
Last year they invited me to speak on the radio in San Quintin by telephone, so everyone in San Quintin could hear about us. I wanted to tell people to get involved in the movement. It’s good for everyone. The strike is the best way to get a fair wage. I wanted to tell people not to get discouraged, that in Washington state we’re struggling too. But then the people at the radio station said they weren’t authorized, and they wouldn’t let me speak.
People in Santa Maria and Madera in California are supporting us too. Many of them come up to Washington in the berry season, and are working at Sakuma right now. They are members of Familias Unidas. I don’t know if people are also thinking about striking in California. In Greenfield, in the Salinas Valley in California, there are a lot of people from the Triqui region, and they organize a lot of movements. They’re very militant. Maybe they will organize a movement there. It would be wonderful if they would.
We are all part of a movement of Indigenous people. In San Quintin the majority of people are Indigenous. On the radio there they speak Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui and Nahuatl. Their strike movement is Indigenous. Everyone involved in our union in Washington is Indigenous also.
Here Indigenous people are really worried about getting fired. The supervisors and foremen shout at them and push them hard. They abuse Indigenous workers more than any others. It’s the same here and in Baja California. What we want is respect for everyone. No matter if you’re from Guatemala or Honduras, Chiapas or Guerrero. The right to be human is for everyone. But sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. But they’re wrong. The right to be human is the same. There should be respect for all.
When we were on strike in 2013, many of us didn’t speak Spanish well. Some of the young people at work would say, “These people don’t know how to talk. They don’t know what they’re doing.” The supervisors would say that too. Then, a year later, we won a legal suit to force Sakuma to pay us for our break time. We won over $800,000. After that the people who didn’t want to have anything to do with us began wanting to talk with us. The boys who were making fun of us started coming around because they wanted money.
There is more anger now. People believe that they shouldn’t be living in bad conditions, people shouldn’t be mistreated. More people are defending their rights. A lot of new people coming from California are already with us. They have a good way of thinking. If we don’t fight for ourselves, who’s going to fight for us? If the bosses want to trample on us, if the government and the police don’t like us, there’s no other way than to struggle.
© Copyright David Bacon