Protesters Join National Berry Boycott

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(From left to right) Michael Garcia, Ruby Campos, Oscar Montiel and Willow Katz demonstrated in front of the Whole Foods on Soquel Avenue on Feb. 27. They were part of a group of protesters asking people to boycott Driscoll’s fruit in solidarity with farmworkers in Washington and Baja California, who allegedly experience unfit working conditions. Photo by Calyse Tobias
(From left to right) Michael Garcia, Ruby Campos, Oscar Montiel and Willow Katz demonstrated in front of the Whole Foods on Soquel Avenue on Feb. 27. They were part of a group of protesters asking people to boycott Driscoll’s fruit in solidarity with farmworkers in Washington and Baja California, who allegedly experience unfit working conditions. Photo by Calyse Tobias

A protest against Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry producer, occurred in Santa Cruz on Friday with about 10 people holding signs outside Whole Foods on Soquel Avenue. Driscoll’s, headquartered in Watsonville, is the subject of a boycott that began in 2015, when employees of two Driscoll’s suppliers reported alleged poverty wages, wage theft and sexual harassment. Friday’s protest aimed to put pressure on Whole Foods to stop selling Driscoll’s berries.

“We’re all in this together. When you protect the farmworkers, you protect the consumer,” said Michael Garcia, a protester and member of the Watsonville Brown Berets, though he wasn’t representing the organization.

The Watsonville Brown Berets is a Chicano-based community organization based on the Brown Berets group that emerged during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. “We’re fighting against the exploitation of our people, and we’re fighting for the farmworkers who are striking in San Quintín [Baja California] and Washington,” he said.

Since 2013, Driscoll’s has been under fire after Sakuma Brothers — its Burlington, Washington supplier — was accused of mistreating its workers that same year. Sakuma Brothers allegedly paid workers below the minimum wage and provided unfit working conditions, although it denies the allegations. In 2015, BerryMex, the San Quintín supplier, was accused of unacceptably low wages, sexual abuse of female employees, and not providing benefits and overtime pay.

“We are disappointed that Driscoll’s continues to be unfairly targeted with secondary boycotts and dissemination of misinformation,” wrote Soren Bjorn, executive vice president for Driscoll’s of the Americas, in an email.

Driscoll’s CEO Kevin Murphy responded to this misinformation in a statement to KION in January saying protesters falsely accused the company of child labor, abuse of workers and the extent of its use of pesticides that are found to cause health problems.

“It’s a war of information,” said Michael Gasser, an environmental justice campaigner who organized Friday’s protest. “It’s going to come down to these two sides making claims about what’s happening on the ground. The obstacle is the power of somebody like Driscoll’s.”

After the allegations were made, Driscoll’s updated its worker welfare standards and launched a program with Fair Trade USA to sell Fair Trade Certified organic strawberries and raspberries from Baja California. These standards follow international criteria, and include zero tolerance policies for child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, harassment and health and safety conditions that pose immediate risks.

Following the farmworker strikes against Sakuma Brothers and BerryMex, the workers formed independent unions — Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) in 2013, and Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas (SINDJA) in 2015. Last year, FUJ expanded its boycott of Sakuma Brothers to include one of its largest clients — Driscoll’s.

“Once you have unions, you have a level of support for whatever happens,” said Jose M. Guido, a Watsonville farmworker who was at the protest. “If something is happening in there and you see that’s it’s not right, then you can talk. But sometimes, you don’t have no one you can go to, no one who can listen to you for whatever issue is going on.”

Although National Farm Worker Ministry, a larger union negotiating on behalf of FUJ, has had meetings with Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden and Driscoll’s Vice President of Supply and Operations John Erb, a union contract has not been formed. Driscoll’s also states it “does not have a direct role in any labor negotiations between growers and their farmworkers” and that its “focus is on worker welfare and ensuring legal compliance is adhered to by all our independent growers.”

Local protesters haven’t attempted to meet with or contact Driscoll’s. Michael Gasser said contrary to Driscoll’s stance, the issue is between the independent farmworkers’ unions and Driscoll’s. The role of the protesters, he says, is about “making the boycott that they’re calling for work.”

“The minimum demands are to negotiate with the independent unions,” Gasser said. “There’s no way these workers will ever get any kind of reasonable conditions without being organized with the independent unions. They are just so vulnerable as it is.”

Gasser and protester Michael Garcia hope the boycotts will pressure Driscoll’s to negotiate with the unions and address their concerns.

“I’m hoping that this boycott, and all the events that come from this boycott, raises awareness about farm workers, [including] the undocumented ones,” Garcia said. “We are here for them, we will be their voice and we will get the rights that they deserve.”

The group of protesters outside,of Whole Foods are hopeful their local boycott will be part of a gradual shift in the culture toward protecting worker rights.

“You hope that a boycott leads to some kind of movement that really wants to change the way the food system works,” Gasser said. “That’s what this is a part of. The whole food system is wrong. It’s wrong for the climate, it’s wrong for the workers and it’s wrong for health. Driscoll’s is just one example.”

Familias Unidas por la Justicia will tour the Bay Area from March 26- April 1 and will be in Santa Cruz on March 30.