Strawberries and Solidarity: Farmworkers Build Unity Around Driscoll’s Berries Boycott

Sameerah Ahmad February 24, 2017

Workers on both sides of the border launched a boycott of Driscoll’s berries. (Image by Vicko Alvarez of ScholaR Comics)

Glo­ria Graci­da Mar­tinez was sent to the fields to pick fruits and veg­eta­bles when she was just 10 years old. She knows first­hand how demand­ing and dan­ger­ous the work can be. Now a teacher in Mex­i­co, Graci­da Mar­tinez shared her mem­o­ries in Span­ish, sit­ting out­side the Chica­go-area La Cat­ri­na Café, which host­ed an event about a boy­cott against Driscoll’s last year. Graci­da Mar­tinez is also a spokes­woman for the Nation­al Inde­pen­dent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Farm­work­ers Union (SIND­JA) in Mexico.

I remem­ber a heavy buck­et of toma­toes, some­times of cucum­bers, and I remem­ber being on my hands and knees in the dirt pick­ing straw­ber­ries. I remem­ber see­ing oth­er chil­dren, too. But some­thing that real­ly changed my life is when I saw an elder­ly per­son and it struck me. I won­der if he had spent his entire life in the fields?” she asked.

Work­ers on both sides of the bor­der launched a boy­cott of Driscoll’s berries in 2015. Driscoll’s, a pri­vate­ly-held and fam­i­ly-owned com­pa­ny, was found­ed in 1944 and is one of the world’s largest berry pro­duc­ers. Work­ers are demand­ing that Driscoll’s pres­sure its grow­ers, like Saku­ma Broth­ers Farms in Wash­ing­ton state and BerryMex in Mex­i­co, to rec­og­nize a union and come to the table to nego­ti­ate a contract.

Recent­ly, work­ers in Wash­ing­ton state, orga­nized through Famil­ias Unidas por la Jus­ti­cia (FUJ), won union recog­ni­tion from Saku­ma Broth­ers. Although farm­work­ers in Mex­i­co are rep­re­sent­ed by unions, activists there say the Driscoll’s boy­cott will con­tin­ue until work­ers win recog­ni­tion with SIND­JA, an inde­pen­dent, work­er-led organization.

Through union recog­ni­tion and a con­tract, farm­work­ers hope to raise wages and improve con­di­tions. Work­ers reg­u­lar­ly spend 12 hours a day pick­ing straw­ber­ries for a dai­ly rate of about $6, accord­ing to SIND­JA. Beyond pay, work­ers have alleged such abus­es as child labor and sex­u­al harassment.

The sim­ple truth is, Driscoll’s has and will con­tin­ue to demon­strate lead­er­ship in the agri­cul­ture indus­try by facil­i­tat­ing ini­tia­tives and stan­dards which sup­port social­ly respon­si­ble busi­ness prac­tices, includ­ing work­er wel­fare,” Driscoll’s said in a statement.

Our vision is a world in which all agri­cul­ture work­ers are treat­ed with dig­ni­ty, fair­ness and respect, and that employ­ment with­in the Driscol­l’s busi­ness enter­prise pro­vides income oppor­tu­ni­ties that meet or exceed local stan­dards,” the com­pa­ny said.

But to the farm­work­ers who pick the straw­ber­ries that end up stick­ered with the brand’s label, dig­ni­ty, fair­ness and respect” takes the form of a con­tract between work­ers and grow­ers. Boy­cotters believe that Driscoll’s ulti­mate­ly has the lever­age — and the resources — to make the goal of union­iza­tion, fair wages and decent work­ing con­di­tions a reality.

Peo­ple and plan­et before profits”

Leah Fried, direc­tor of inter­na­tion­al strate­gies for the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE), helped to host Graci­da Martinez’s trip to Chica­go in July. The UE’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Tri-Nation­al Sol­i­dar­i­ty Alliance brought the berry pick­ers’ strug­gle to the union’s attention.

One of the most impor­tant tasks of unions in the Unit­ed States is to forge alliances with unions glob­al­ly to address poor work­ing con­di­tions whether they’re in your indus­try or not, explains Fried, whose glass­es and black curly locks add to her effer­ves­cent demeanor.

When asked by a reporter whether she eats straw­ber­ries, Fried smiles and says, I love straw­ber­ries, yes. I love all berries. Blue­ber­ries! Rasp­ber­ries! Black­ber­ries, I love them all!” She chuck­les in between her berry parade and then states in all seri­ous­ness, I don’t buy Driscoll.”

The finan­cial impact of the boy­cott is not clear. Driscoll’s is a pri­vate com­pa­ny, not pub­licly trad­ed, which means it doesn’t have to release finan­cial details. A com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tive declined to say what, if any, impact the boy­cott has had on Driscoll’s bot­tom line. The same rep­re­sen­ta­tive also stressed that Driscol­l’s can­not legal­ly man­date its inde­pen­dent grow­ers to rec­og­nize orga­ni­za­tions as for­mal unions.

Jose Oli­va, Fried’s part­ner and a Guatemalan immi­grant, is co-direc­tor of the Food Chain Work­ers Alliance, a net­work of work­er orga­ni­za­tions and efforts across the food sup­ply chain that are orga­niz­ing for work­ers’ rights. Oli­va explains why he is pas­sion­ate about the work he does.

It’s real­ly about trans­form­ing this food sys­tem into a food sys­tem that’s about putting peo­ple and plan­et before prof­its,” he says.

Their fight is our fight”

Oli­va sits on a com­fort­able suede couch. His bright green Trou­ble­mak­ers Union” T‑shirt pairs with the but­ter­scotch walls of his liv­ing room. He address­es pub­lic per­cep­tions about unions.

Some­one read­ing this could say, well, I’m a woman, I can vote,’ or I am a per­son of col­or and I can mar­ry some­one that is not of my race.’ Those changes that affect us at a very per­son­al lev­el hap­pened not because there was some gra­cious law­mak­er that decid­ed to give peo­ple these rights. They hap­pened because there were orga­nized groups that demand­ed those things and cre­at­ed that pres­sure for the change to happen.”

Unions are no different.

In terms of the Driscoll’s boy­cott, Oli­va says, Folks read­ing this should A) stop buy­ing berries and B) tell the world that they’re not buy­ing berries because of the boy­cott. Oth­er­wise, Driscoll’s basi­cal­ly shrugs this off and says it’s a mar­ket thing or what­ev­er, right? … For peo­ple who are so encour­aged there’s a third thing that peo­ple could do, which is to get engaged in an orga­ni­za­tion that is actu­al­ly active­ly sup­port­ing the boycott.”

One such orga­ni­za­tion is the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU). Car­los Car­ril­lo, a mem­ber, spoke as he stood out­side of a Cost­co in Chica­go with a group of teach­ers, hold­ing signs and pass­ing out fly­ers about the boy­cott to shoppers.

Only togeth­er, only through a boy­cott, sim­i­lar to the Cesar Chavez boy­cott of the 70’s, only togeth­er will we gain a union recog­ni­tion for these work­ers and the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing that they deserve and that they need,” he said.

Car­ril­lo urged young peo­ple in Chica­go to par­tic­i­pate in the boy­cott.

Their fight is our fight. Our strug­gles here, whether it be vio­lence or whether it be unem­ploy­ment or whether it be dis­crim­i­na­tion, is the same oppres­sion that they’re fac­ing over there,” he said. If we don’t help them, lat­er they’ll come for us … When they stand, we need to stand.”

Read more from the author here.

Sameer­ah Ahmad is a grad­u­ate stu­dent and labor orga­niz­er based out of Chica­go, Illi­nois. You can con­nect with her at linkedin​.com/​i​n​/​s​a​m​e​e​r​a​h​ahmad.
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