The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 78/No. 32      September 15, 2014

On the Picket Line

Berry pickers in Washington
seek union recognition, contract

BURLINGTON, Wash. — Berry pickers in Washington’s Skagit Valley have entered the second year of their fight to win union recognition and a contract with improved conditions. They formed their union — Familias Unidas por la Justicia — last year, in the course of strikes at Sakuma Brothers Farms Inc.

Some 150 farmworkers walked off the job and protested Aug. 11 at Sakuma’s offices in Bow against the firing of co-worker Cornelio Ramirez, one of 11 members of the union’s negotiations committee. He had received warnings for “talking back,” recording a conversation with bosses and picking too slow.

At a meeting with the company, “I said we need more money for what we do,” Ramirez told the Militant. “I spoke up for all of us and for that I was fired. Since then I’ve tried to get a job at another farm. But the foreman showed me a list of members of Familias Unidas that had my name on it and would not hire me.”

While Ramirez and four other workers were in the office demanding reinstatement and the removal of warnings on other workers, farm bosses tried to park a line of tractors between the farmworkers’ picket line and Ramon Torres, president of the union, who is not allowed on company property. Picket Carmen Ventura Juarez led others in blocking the tractors and preventing the pickets from getting boxed in.

Familias Unidas has won support from the Puget Sound District Council of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and others unions, attends meetings of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council and received a resolution of support from the Washington State Labor Council convention.

Farms bosses have also been organizing. In response to the union’s call for a boycott of Sakuma berries, members of the Washington Farm Bureau launched the I Love Berries campaign, which has staged anti-union counterprotests. “Until the farmers and the farmworkers come together, we’re both losers,” Steve Sakuma, one of the owners of Sakuma Brothers, said in July.

Familias Unidas responded with an open letter:

“With all due respect, we the members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia are writing this letter in good faith to ask for a meeting. … If you really mean what you have said in public about caring for the farmworkers and our community, together we can end this conflict. We know that the blueberry harvest is here and you need us as much as we need you. … The only thing we want is to negotiate and assure a better future for our children.”

While some workers at Sakuma Farms are afraid to join the union, workers at some other companies have gotten in touch with them, Felimon Pineda, vice president of Familias Unidas, said by phone Aug. 20. “If you want to defend your rights against abuse on the job, this union is for you,” he said. “If we win a contract this would be a basis for improving our conditions. We want medical care, vacation, pensions. If we win these things, it would benefit many in Burlington, other parts of Washington and beyond.”

More information on Familias Unidas por la Justicia, including how to support the union, can be found at

— Clay Dennison

Quebec municipal workers
fight attack on pensions

MONTREAL — Tens of thousands of unionized municipal workers here and across Quebec are locked in a battle with the provincial Liberal Party government against legislation to impose new pension terms.

City office workers, road construction crews, garbage collectors, street cleaners, bus drivers and others have been mobilizing under the banner of the Coalition for Free Negotiations to oppose the anti-union maneuver that disregards existing contracts and denies workers the right to negotiate over pension plans, as they have for many years. An organization of more than 50,000 retirees is also represented by the coalition.

Cops, whose pensions will also be affected, have marched in the workers’ demonstrations.

On Aug. 20, the day that parliamentary hearings began on the legislation, hundreds of municipal workers protested at provincial government offices here and at the Quebec National Assembly in Quebec City.

“This is not just a fight for us, but for all the retirees,” said Gaétan Dudiatellier, a city bus mechanic.

“We made sacrifices in negotiations to get the pensions we now have,” said Marie-Hélèn Vermette, an office worker also employed by the city bus company. “Unions need the right to negotiate.”

To loud cheers and the blowing of horns, Jean Lapierre, former president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 301, said, “The Liberal government is severely mistaken if it thinks it can keep stealing from us without a fight.”

The government says the law is needed to maintain the viability of 172 pension plans by covering a $3.9 billion deficit. Workers would pay 50 percent of the contribution costs and 50 percent of deficits accrued before 2014. Automatic cost-of-living pension increases would be cancelled. In addition, a city budget cap on pension costs of 18 percent would be imposed.

For the average Montreal city office worker, the proposed law would mean paying $1,950 a year more and receiving $1,880 less.

— John Steele

Hotel workers in Quebec
end strike after 21 months

SAINT-HYACINTHE, Quebec —Some 105 workers at Hotel des Seigneurs voted 90 percent on July 30 to end their 21-month strike, but nonetheless refused to accept the hotel bosses’ concession demands.

Hotel des Seigneurs was the largest hotel in the area when the strike began in 2012, with up to 300 workers employed in convention and banquet facilities.

At that time the Hotel des Seigneurs workers were among 5,500 members of the Confederation of National Trade Unions at 35 hotels across Quebec fighting contract concessions. While many hotel owners settled on terms more favorable to the workers than those the bosses had been pressing, SilverBirch, which owned Hotel des Seigneurs, decided to sell rather than negotiate.

The Bibeau family, who bought the hotel, tore down the kitchen and convention center, eliminating 88 jobs. It plans to contract out the majority of the other positions, maintaining little more than 40 unionized jobs.

Workers debated the issue for four hours before the July 30 vote. After 21 months of walking the picket line and taking part in numerous solidarity actions with other workers, they decided to go in together or not at all.

At a union press conference on Aug. 1, Local President Robin St-Pierre captured the mood of the meeting by repeating a comment made by one of the workers: “We leave with our head high, not on our knees.”

“I think that no one wins in this conflict — neither the union nor the boss, and certainly not the town,” Brigitte Malenfant, who worked in the banquet area for 28 years, told the Militant.

—Annette Kouri

Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home