May 30, 2016 Sandy Robson
On May 19, 2016, I called Whole Foods Pacific Northwest Regional office and asked to speak to Joe Rogoff, President of the Pacific Northwest Region. I wanted to speak to him about the new Whole Foods Market store that opened in Bellingham, Washington, on May 11, 2016, and the protest by a delegation of farm workers and their supporters from the local community, that occurred during the store’s grand opening ceremony.
Rogoff was not in the regional office when I called, so I asked to speak to the person who heads up marketing for the Pacific Northwest region, Susan Livingston. I spoke at length with her, voicing my concern on a number of issues relating to farm worker justice and labor practices at Sakuma Bros. Farms, a supplier of berries to Driscoll’s, and the fact that the newly-opened Whole Foods Market store in Bellingham is selling Driscoll’s berries. Ms. Livingston listened to what I had to say, provided some information about Whole Foods Market, and at the end of our conversation I asked if she would have Joe Rogoff call me.
Rogoff returned my call on May 24th, and we spoke for a little over 20 minutes. This story is about that phone call. But first, a little background is needed on the group that is protesting, and why they are protesting.
One of the groups involved in the interruption of the May 11 Whole Foods Market store opening was Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), an independent farm worker union, based in Burlington, Washington, in Skagit County. Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) was formed in the summer of 2013, in response to what members of FUJ say is racial harassment, unfair wages, and other unjust labor practices faced by farm workers at Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc., located about 30 minutes south of Bellingham, in Skagit County. Sakuma Bros. Farms is a family business, which to some can imply small, however, the company has annual sales of over $6 million.
Much of the leadership and membership within FUJ, is comprised of individuals who have worked for Sakuma Bros. Farms for over a decade. The union has approximately 300 members, some of whom are local workers, but over half of whom are migrants from California. They are predominantly immigrants, coming from indigenous towns in Oaxaca and southern Mexico. FUJ is led by a leadership team, of which Ramon Torres is President. Torres is a former berry picker at Sakuma Bros. Farms.
The protesters at the May 11 Whole Foods store opening included farm workers and other community members who were there in solidarity with the farm workers, to protest Whole Foods’ selling of Driscoll’s berries at the store. FUJ’s Ramon Torres spoke passionately to the crowd which included customers there for the opening ceremony and other community members who were there to support the protesters who were interrupting the festivities.
FUJ posted a May 11, 2016 press release on its Facebook page about the group’s action outside Whole Foods on its Bellingham store’s opening day. The press release stated: “We know that upper management of Whole Foods is already well aware of the boycott and is actively choosing not to honor it. We interrupted their opening today to let them know that this community supports local farmworkers and if they want to be accepted in this community by locals who care about where their food comes from they need to honor the Driscoll’s Boycott.”
Farm workers who currently work, or formerly worked, at Sakuma Bros. Farms are attempting to get a legally-binding union contract for a $15 an hour minimum wage with Sakuma, and until that happens, they want shoppers and stores that support their struggle, to boycott Driscoll’s berries. Two established independent grocery stores in Bellingham that could be characterized as competitors of Whole Foods; the Community Food Co-op, and Terra Organic and Natural Foods, already have been honoring FUJ’s request to boycott Driscoll’s by not carrying that brand of berries. Not only did Whole Foods choose not to honor the Driscoll’s boycott, the store also chose to feature a significant Driscoll’s berry display near the store’s front entrance on opening day which was still up when I spoke to Joe Rogoff in our phone call on May 24th.
Getting back to my phone conversation with Whole Foods Market Pacific Northwest Region President Joe Rogoff—one of the main things that prompted me to contact him was that I had read FUJ’s May 11 press release referenced above, that included information about store management having refused to accept a letter from the farm worker group protesting that day. When Rogoff called me back on May 24, I introduced myself and explained that I had a few concerns and comments I wanted to share with him. I started by telling him I had read a statement by the group that had interrupted the store’s opening and they said that they had tried to present a letter to store management/personnel who refused to accept the group’s letter.
Rogoff said: “They did not present a letter to me.” While Joe Rogoff says that he was not presented a letter by the protesters, the photo displayed below, was taken during the event, and it shows boycott organizer Andrew Eckels attempting to present a letter to a Whole Foods employee.
Rogoff continued on in a monologue for the next several minutes. He said, “I’m a very active person politically, and I went through my youth when I did violent protests and destructive things, and learned over time that if you want to make enemies that’s kind of what you do.” He told me he thought it was a real shame that they approached the opening event in that way because according to Rogoff, “the ramification was that all the customers standing outside hated them [the protesters], almost to a person that came up to me and appreciated me for my calm and acceptance and said, ‘I’m gonna go buy Driscoll’s berries now.'”
“These folks deserve a voice, they ought to have a voice, but the practice that they had in trying to shout down—the guy got in my face so that people felt like I was under threat. I had all these people converging around me to protect me from this extremely agitated and violent man,” Rogoff said.
He elaborated, saying there was no conversation that day, and that the group didn’t try to present any kind of letter or anything else. He added, “They just left. As soon as they were done disrupting the opening, all the people [customers] came in the door, I went back outside and they [the protesters] had left.”
Rogoff went on to say that on the next day, May 12th, there were people outside the store leafleting about the Driscoll’s boycott, so about an hour before he left for the day, he went up to them and had a conversation for about an hour to learn if there was something he was not aware of that he should know. He said he took that information and has spent time researching since then.
Then, Rogoff said, “Susan Livingston told me that they [the protesters] said other store team leaders and stores of ours treated them discourteously. I don’t believe that for a second. We’re a target for every protest because people know we listen, so we actually have standards.”
He claimed that the protesters don’t bother protesting Safeway or any other stores that carry Driscoll’s. “They protest us because we’re nice and we listen. What I get tired of is misrepresentation and lies that are overtly for self interests. And, this is not the first time this has happened with this group, where they tell stories that just aren’t true,” Rogoff said. He opined that the way the group protesting had acted during the store’s opening ceremony did not help anyone in the audience, or himself, to respect them or their cause anymore.
Contrary to Rogoff’s assertion that groups don’t protest at other stores selling Driscoll’s berries, there have been numerous Boycott Driscoll’s protests at stores, such as Costco, and Fred Meyer. Shown below are screenshot photos of three Facebook posts regarding Boycott Driscoll’s protests at Costco and Fred Meyer stores.
He continued on, saying he has been a social justice advocate for 42 years and has been very politically involved in all kinds of causes, explaining that it’s why he works for Whole Foods Market. He asserted that Whole Foods does more than any national company for standards around the globe for the producers of our food. When he said that, I thought to myself that it seems odd then, that if Whole Foods really does more than any national company for standards around the globe for producers of its company’s food as Rogoff claims, that the company would still not have not yet met and talked with anyone from FUJ. According to boycott organizers, FUJ has contacted Whole Foods over the last year or so, asking for a meeting, but, so far, the company has not agreed to meet with them.
Rogoff stated: “When it comes to Sakuma, there’s been a lot of misrepresentation on both sides. The founder of Familias Unidas, I’m not gonna get into character assassination, but it’s not a good deal. The United Farm Workers don’t know what to do with these folks. They don’t support them.” He said the kind of negotiation the farm workers and FUJ are trying to do with Sakuma right now is “so out of line with anything that could be financially successful for any farm,” that the farm workers and FUJ are being met with resistance from Sakuma that they characterize as “refusal to negotiate.”
He then finally took a pause from having spoken for almost 5 minutes straight without affording me a chance to speak, and asked me, “So, is any of this news to you?”
My response was: “I have a few comments in listening to what you’ve said and how you said it—and I’m not sure if you even realize how you sound…” He interrupted me then to say, “Oh, I’m very angry at them, they were very disrespectful to me. And, they were physically threatening to me. It’s not acceptable.”
Rogoff paused, so I took an opportunity to try to speak again. I explained that I would understand if he had said instead, that he felt threatened and that he perceived it as an uncomfortable, scary experience. I started to say, “To say that someone was violent, I mean you could say that you felt that there could be violence, but to say…” Before I could finish my sentence, he exclaimed, “Did you see video of the guy?” He immediately repeated the question before I could answer: “Did you see video of the guy?”
I answered that yes, I did watch it, and said that I saw FUJ President Ramon Torres, move up close to him briefly, and I shared that I don’t like it when people are near me when they even talk softly with me because I tend to get anxious and… Rogoff interrupted me to say “He was screaming in my face. He was gesticulating—his arms were jumping all over the place. He was threatening me physically.”
I began speaking again, saying that I was attempting to finish my answer to his question to me, in which he asked me if I had seen the video. He let me then continue. I said I saw Ramon Torres move briefly up close to him, and that I understood that to him [Rogoff], that felt uncomfortable, however I didn’t feel it was fair for him to state that Torres was violent, as I did not see his actions as violent, but it would be a correct comment for Rogoff to have stated instead, that it felt violent, to him.
Mr. Rogoff acknowledged that he understood my point, and said, “I don’t disagree.”
Sensing that perhaps at that point I might actually have an opportunity to tell Rogoff the information I had contacted him about, I then began to bring up points about Sakuma Bros. Farms’ practices. I specifically referenced the fact that there were multiple Skagit County Court cases in which farm workers had to file lawsuits. One of which was a law suit filed in order to obtain money earned by Sakuma farm workers that the company had not paid them. Another lawsuit against Sakuma Bros. Farms involved farm workers’ housing discrimination and workers’ rights, as well. I said that I hope Whole Foods will look deeper into the Sakuma/Driscoll’s/farm workers issue and give greater investigation and consideration on that subject.
Rogoff told me that after he got the information from the group he said had been outside the store, leafleting the day (May 12) after the store’s opening day, that he already is in contact with Whole Foods’ global berry purchasers and global produce coordinator, and that the company had some plans to get deeper into this issue.
I asked Rogoff to keep in mind, while he’s looking into things, that the farm workers at Sakuma simply want a legally-binding, union contract that would provide workers with a flat wage of $15 an hour, and I pointed out to him the work they do is very, very hard physical work—I added that I could not even last a few hours doing that, and neither could most people.
Attempting to placate its workers and people who follow and support the farm workers’ fight for fair wages, Sakuma Bros. Farms rolled out a new pay structure in April of 2015. Sakuma Bros. Farms purports that with its company’s new pay structure, the farm workers supposedly can now earn up to $27 per hour. That new pay system pays farm workers $10 an hour, and according to Sakuma Bros. Farms officials, the workers have the potential to earn a production bonus of up to $17 per hour, based on the number of pounds picked for strawberry and blueberry crops. That pay structure replaced the piece rate (rate per pound) system that had been in place at the farm.
My comment to Joe Rogoff about Sakuma’s ostensibly generous pay structure was this: “If the farm workers really could be making $27 an hour like Sakuma Bros. Farms puts forth, I don’t believe they would be fighting for a $15 per hour minimum wage. I think that’s a very complicated pay structure that is not being attained by the bulk of workers at the farm for various reasons, and that is the reality—I’m not out there fighting for $15 an hour if I’m making $27 an hour, or $22 an hour.”
Rogoff, agreeing with my statement said, “That did not ring true to me either by the way.” If he agrees with me in questioning the pay structure that Sakauma Bros. Farms has in place presently for its berry pickers, then why is Whole Foods choosing to believe information coming from only Driscoll’s and from Sakuma? And, why has Whole Foods, so far, not chosen to meet with representatives from FUJ to speak with them face-to-face in order to hear their stories first hand?
It has been my thinking all along that Whole Foods should have already met with FUJ, but I have to say, that now, after hearing Joe Rogoff, President of the Pacific Northwest Region for Whole Foods Market, cast aspersions on FUJ President Ramon Torres, and the group of farm workers and their supporters who were protesting at the store’s May 11th grand opening, I think the company definitely owes FUJ a meeting.
Had Joe Rogoff not spent most of our phone conversation venting about his anger toward Ramon Torres and the protesters, and had instead spent the time listening to my concerns and comments as a potential customer of Whole Foods, I would have had a chance to make more than just a general, brief reference about those lawsuits filed against Sakuma Bros. Farms that I mentioned to him.
For example, I would have told Rogoff that according to a Nov. 16, 2014 Capital Press article, a federal judge approved a settlement stemming from a 2013 lawsuit filed by farm workers that alleged Sakuma Bros. Farms underpaid workers by not properly accounting for the time spent in the fields. The settlement would net 408 current (at the time of the article’s publication) and former Sakuma Bros. farm workers an average of $1,221.30 in back wages.
In that settlement, Sakuma agreed to pay $850,000 to bring the case to a close. Of that total amount, $500,000 was to be split among current (at the time of the article’s publication) and former farm workers for back wages, and the rest would go toward attorney fees. The fact that farm workers had to go to court to get the company to pay them money they had rightfully earned does not bode well for Sakuma’s touted promises of production bonuses for workers.
I would have had an opportunity to tell Rogoff about when Sakuma, in 2014, had announced that they would only provide housing for workers, but not for the workers’ spouses or children who were not employed at the farm. FUJ took Sakuma Bros. Farms to court, resulting in a Skagit County Superior Court judge siding with the farm workers and ordering Sakuma Bros. Farms to house workers’ family members whether they were employed at the farm, or not. KPLU News online (kplu.org) had reported on that court case in a June 26, 2014 article:
“Like many large farms, Sakuma Brothers Farms has provided housing for migrant workers and their families during the berry season for generations. The judge said changing that tradition now, after workers have organized, appears to be retaliation for workers’ union activities, which is against the law. Additionally, the judge said, discriminating against families with children or married couples by saying they aren’t allowed in the housing units violates state laws against housing discrimination.”
And, I could have informed him about another example of Sakuma Bros. Farms’ apparent retaliation against its farm workers, when back in April 2013, Sakuma Bros. Farms notified hundreds of farm workers that they were not eligible for employment because they went on strike the prior season. The Stand reported in a May 29, 2013 article, that Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook ordered Sakuma to immediately revoke the letter, which was said to have violated Washington law protecting the farm workers’ right to strike without retaliation.
I also did not get a chance to tell Rogoff about Skagit County Superior Court Judge John M. Meyer, in September 2013, having ordered Sakuma Bros. Farms to remove guards the company had stationed at labor camps where they could observe or eavesdrop on the workers. The order also prohibited Sakuma Bros. Farms from following workers on public roads. After the 2013 strikes by Sakuma’s farm workers, the farm had tried to place security guards around the labor camps where farm workers reside. Workers found that to be intimidating, the judge agreed, and ordered Sakuma Bros. Farms not to interfere with the workers’ right to organize, and ordered the company to withdraw the guards.
If I had to spend all day doing labor as physically demanding as picking berries, I can tell you that after knowing about Sakuma Bros. Farms’ historically unfair labor practices, I would definitely want a written, guaranteed, fair hourly wage that is backed by a legally-binding union contract. I would not want some potential, company-constructed “production bonus,” that not only seems questionable in terms of being attainable, but also is something I would have to hope and pray the company pays me after I’ve done all that labor, so that I wouldn’t end up having to file a lawsuit in order to receive my hard-earned pay that I deserved, and to receive basic workers’ rights that farm workers are due.