What’s behind the Driscoll’s berry boycott?
In a climate where increasing numbers of people want to know not only what’s in their food, but where it’s grown, by whom and in what conditions, our personal understanding of the issues surrounding major boycotts, or calls for them, is essential. Such is the situation with the world’s largest berry distributor, Driscoll’s, which has been the focus of labor disputes since at least 2013.
What’s going on?
The argument stems from a 1,000-acre Burlington, Washington farm and processing plant, Sakuma Brothers’ Farm, which grows food for Driscoll’s, and has been charged by the independent farmworkers’ union of Familias Unidas por La Justicia (Families United for Justice, or FUJ) for numerous allegations including wage theft, hostile working conditions and poverty wages. In June of 2016, Slow Food USA joined in solidarity with FUJ to call for a national boycott of Driscoll’s, stating, “Slow Food USA respects and values the hands that feed us. This is why we stand in solidarity with Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Support their boycott of Driscoll’s Berries and other labels who ignore their role in building a food system that is truly good, clean and fair for all.” Workers want the aforementioned allegations addressed, and also want reliability in wages, rather than a pay-per-pound (of berries picked) wage, so they can be sure how much they’ll make each day on the job. One unidentified worker in a documentary, La Fuerza Interna, on the subject states, “As a farmworker, you don’t know how much you are going to get paid each day, and you still have to pay for gas, childcare, food. To come to work not knowing how much you’re going to make that day—it’s an unfair process.” As understandable as these desires are for regular people, the Sakuma Brothers and Driscoll’s have asserted their own perspectives and statements on the issue as well.
In 2014, Sakuma Brothers was hit with a lawsuit over invalid logging of hours and breaks, which eventually awarded Familias Unidas por La Justicia with an $850,000 settlement. Even since this expensive loss, Sakuma Brothers CEO Steve Sakuma argues against FUJ, insists farm workers return to work for them annually because their wages, (even though they are paid per-pound instead of per-hour) can, at times, be even higher than minimum wage (which is, in Washington $9.47 at the moment), and calls the union leadership “outside agitators.”
A meeting was held between Sakuma Brothers and FUJ on July 14th, originally announced as a time to discuss the option of voting about whether workers still wanted union representation or not. But results of the meeting seem minimal in that regard since FUJ released the following statement afterward, “No decisions were made during this meeting, but FUJ is looking forward to continuing the conversation with Sakuma.” (Most recent developments found on the issue at this time have included the denial of Sakuma Brothers to increase the per-pound wage from 56 cents to $1.00)
Driscoll’s itself has investigated the facilities and operations via third-party audits, finding it to be in compliance with standards and notes it is “making continuous improvements in providing a forum for open dialogue and empowerment for their farmworkers” on their website. Maintaining neutrality in the matter, Driscoll’s must feel confident they won’t lose much business from the boycott after all. They may be right, if they’ve assumed this assessment, as it does appear difficult to find many alternatives to Driscoll’s berries in most stores. Unless you’re willing to go without berries at all, you may be in for a surprise attempting this boycott. One co-op, in deciding to continue to stock Driscoll’s amidst the call for boycotts, stated this week, “So to boycott Driscoll’s would mean being left without berries more often than not, and that would makes us a less viable resource for our shoppers,” the Co-op’s statement said. “We encourage you to shop your values, and to avoid purchasing Driscoll’s product, if that is where your conscience leads you.”
If you’d like to participate in this boycott, or stay updated, or if you feel the need to contact these companies or union members directly, their contact information is as follows:
Attn: Consumer Relations Department
PO Box 50045
Watsonville, CA 95077-5045
Sakuma Brothers Farm Inc
17790 Cook Road
Burlington, WA 98233
Familias Unidas por la Justicia
P.O. Box 1206
Burlington, WA 98233