In his guest piece on the March farmworkers’ strike at Skagit’s Washington Bulb Company (CDN, March 30), Larry Stap, president of the organization Save Family Farming, recited the familiar arguments against such labor strikes: They hurt workers most; they reflect the political agendas of the few while obscuring the well being of the many; they unfairly target well-intentioned company owners.
These are tired points, refuted elegantly elsewhere through both prose and the direct actions and demands of striking workers. Stap’s piece, however, also lacks representation of those involved in the event. In transforming the bulb workers’ strike into what he perceives as the personal vendettas of Rosalinda Guillen, of Bellingham’s Community to Community Development, and the locally-based farmworkers’ union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Stap not only misleads readers as to the function and motives of these organizations, but also muddles the objectives of the recent strike and, crucially, diminishes its true actors, the farmworkers themselves.
Farmers feeling rattled is unsurprising
That many of Cascadia's most prominent farm owners feel rattled by Guillen and Familias Unidas is unsurprising; Guillen fronts a women-led, nationally-recognized organization that promotes the right to unionize and the ownership of farms by farmworkers, while Familias Unidas stands impressively as one of only four farmworkers’ unions in the country. The union is the result of a hard-fought dispute between Skagit farmworkers and local berry behemoth, Driscoll-owned Sakuma Brothers, and an important example of the lasting impact of worker organization.
Save Family Farming's consistent focus on what they perceive to be the personal-political schemes of Guillen and Familias Unidas, however, reveals one of the most crucial weaknesses in the organization’s attempts to champion local farm systems: The farmworkers who Save Family Farms claims to represent get lost in the organization’s own paranoia and refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of worker complaints and demands.
Stap, it should be noted, sits on the board of Save Family Farming with John Roozen, a principal owner of Washington Bulb Co. and a legacy wielder of one of the most dominating agricultural powers in Skagit County. Roozen and Stap belong to a strong contingency of farm owners who act as longstanding advocates for the preservation of farmland as well as the all-too-flexible ideal of the local family farm, without adequately addressing the role of farmworkers in Cascadia’s agricultural past, present and future.
Workforce distilled into villainized few
Critical misunderstandings of their own industry’s workforce have led to the distilling of worker action into the work of only a villainized few. Stap’s presentation of the bulbworkers’ strike as Guillen’s personal handiwork creates a belittling and misguiding image of immigrant farmworkers as mere pawns in her hands. Washington’s farmworkers are not gullible, helpless actors being dragged along a personal political agenda. To portray us as such perpetuates harmful and disempowering perceptions of our region’s farmworkers and diminishes the ingenuity and persistence inherent to farm work and organization.
The Washington Bulb Co. strike was a worker-led, worker-powered effort. On March 22, more than 70 of the company’s primarily Spanish-, Mixteco- and Triqui-speaking workers walked off the job with a clear set of demands and frustrations and, at the time, without the official safety provided by union membership. These un-unionized workers called on the established experience of Familias Unidas for guidance and aid, as well as the support of the local community.
Strike backed by community support
On March 25, only three days after the strike’s beginning, the elected committee of workers, with the continued support of Familias Unidas, entered into negotiations with Washington Bulb Co.’s representatives and company president Leo Roozen. The efficiency and impact of the strike was due primarily to the clear vision and determined efforts of farmworkers and a varied platform of community support, key points that Stap seems to have missed in favor of name-dragging the strike’s supporters.
Save Family Farming prides itself on the presentation of fact, but it remains a consistent shame that their chosen facts rely on the erasure of farmworker efforts, grievances and achievements.
Hannah Swartos is a farmworker in the Skagit Valley.