SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- In a modern day “circling of the wagons,” farmers drove their tractors and trucks around the Skagit County Courthouse Thursday in support of Sakuma Farms.
"When you start adding increased requirements it makes it harder and harder to do our jobs," said supporter Kristen Hinton of Hinton Ranches.
Earlier this year, Sakuma told berry pickers they could no longer house their families at dormitories the farm provides as a benefit for its workers. Workers claimed it was retaliation for last year’s strikes seeking better pay and working conditions. Owner Steve Sakuma argued he needed the space to hire more pickers after losing a million dollars to the work stoppages.
On Thursday, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook ruled that since Sakuma provides housing, he isn’t just a farmer, but a landlord, as well, and he can’t discriminate against anyone.
"You’re welcome to live here, you just can’t bring you kids. That clearly doesn’t work," she said.
The decision is met with great relief by workers, who see it is a major step toward unionizing the nation’s migrant work force.
"If there’s problems of exploitation on the farm where they work and they’re living in the labor camp, do not hold back. Fight for your rights and organize," said advocate Rosalind Guillen. "Now they can't take your home from you."
But could this victory backfire for pickers?
The ruling does not mean all farms must now provide housing. Those that do, however, will now be under much tighter scrutiny. Farms like Sakuma's offer housing as an incentive to bring back a stable work force every year. Since farms are not required to provide housing in Washington, many may now choose not to offer it at all. That could bring additional troubles for workers trying to find affordable places to live.
After the decision Thursday, Steve Sakuma predicted unavoidable price increases and he wondered what the effect will be on jobs and future of family farms.
"Why would a company stay here in these conditions if they can’t make it, but they can make it if they go to another country?” said Sakuma. “The people of America are going to have to decide what they want. Do you want food grown here in the United States, and if so, what are you willing to pay for it?"