Since calls for a boycott of berry distributor Driscoll’s began in 2013, San Francisco grocers have struggled to find more information about the issues driving the labor dispute. The boycott effort has mostly been grassroots, led by Mexican farmworkers, many of whom are isolated and speak indigenous languages, making it difficult to communicate with reliable news sources. Last fall, the issue got more confusing when word spread that the boycott was being called off.
The labor battle against the company has been fought on two fronts. In 2013, workers in Northwest Washington organized several walkouts over unpaid wages at Sakuma Brothers Farms. Then, in 2015, workers in Mexico’s San Quintin Valley, in Baja, California, launched a series of strikes over living and working conditions at BerryMex. Driscoll’s is the principal distributor for both farms.
The operations primarily employ migrant farm workers, many from Mexico’s Oaxaca region. The two groups of farmworkers committed to assist each other in elevating the boycott into an international affair.
However, in September Sakuma agreed to allow its workers to unionize; 77 of roughly 370 farmworkers voted to join Familia Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ). That led FUJ to call-off the boycott while they negotiate a contract with Sakuma.
Labor leaders hailed the unionization as a major victory. The union is only the third independent farmworker union formed in Washington in the last three decades, and the first led by indigenous workers. In 2014, in what was the largest wage settlement ever in Washington, Sakuma agreed to pay $850,000 for unpaid hours. The next year, berry pickers took their case to the state supreme court, where they won the right to paid rest breaks.
Maru Mora Villalpando, a FUJ spokesperson and longtime activist for indigenous people’s rights, told the View that a contract is expected by March; the parties have agreed to arbitration if an agreement cannot be reached. She said all farm workers remain in solidarity, but that issues in Mexico make unionizing more complicated, including the existence of “protection” unions, which are forced on employees who have no say in them.
A week after the FUJ announcement, the Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democratic de Jornaleros Agricolas (SINDJA), which is organizing farmers in San Quintin, stated in a press release, “We clarify and reiterate the Driscoll’s boycott is in full force.”
While Sakuma Brothers is an independent company, BerryMex is closely related to Driscoll’s. Some grocers question the validity of the boycott based on concerns that Driscoll’s is being targeted because it’s America’s largest berry distributor. The company got out of the farming business in the 1960s, and instead now provides seeds to growers, and packs and ships berries to market. BerryMex is owned by Reiter Affiliated Companies, whose chief executive officer, Garland Reiter, is the brother of Driscoll’s chairman of the board, Miles Reiter. Driscoll’s was founded by their grandfather, Joseph Driscoll, and his cousin, R.O. Driscoll.
The San Francisco Labor Council last year endorsed the boycott. A statement penned by its executive director, Tim Paulsen, primarily referred to Mexican workers who were living in “rat-infested camps” with wages often withheld and forced to purchase goods from overpriced company stores. Paulsen is currently on medical leave and unreachable.
Farm workers from the San Quintin Valley have been touring the West Coast in support of the boycott. One of them, 28-year old Carmen Mata, has been a berry picker in Baja since she was nine years old. In an interview, assisted by a Spanish/English interpreter, she stated bluntly that “Driscoll’s is one of the most exploitive companies in Baja, California.” While Driscoll’s doesn’t directly employ farm workers, workers claim that the company actively advises farmers.
Mata explained that in addition to discrimination toward indigenous peoples, as well as sexual abuse, workers are poorly paid and often uncompensated for extra hours. She said indigenous workers are kept in labor-intensive positions and passed up for better paying jobs. For a day that runs from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., she made between 120 to 150 pesos, or $6 to $8. Traveling in the U.S. for the first time, she was startled to see how much berries sell for.
Mata was among several hundred workers who were fired shortly after a march of 70,000 striking laborers from several farms turned violent in May, 2015. The Mexican army was called in to assist state and local police. There were widespread reports of government buildings burned, rocks thrown and rubber bullets fired. The protest was preceded by a petition to the state of Baja for the right to unionize, which was ignored.
Driscoll’s didn’t respond to inquiries from the View. After the uprising, BerryMex increased pay to the 226 pesos a day, about $12, which is high for farm workers anywhere in Mexico.
Mata said the farm workers’ goal is to have SINDJA be recognized, and replace the Mexican government unions to which workers are currently subjected. Until that happens, she wants businesses not to sell Driscoll’s.
While major supermarkets, including Whole Foods, stock Driscoll’s berries, some exclusively, many grocers have grappled with the boycott. Whole Foods, which has been the target of picketers at several West Coast stores, declined to comment about the issue. Rainbow Grocery, however, has had a long-standing policy against carrying Driscoll’s. One of the store’s produce buyers, Victor Kobayashi, said the rule predates the boycott, and is “based on how they treat their workers.” Nonetheless, Driscoll’s links to Rainbow on its website as one of the 59 stores it sells to. When informed of that, Kobayashi called it disturbing. “In the 20 years I have worked here not a single Driscoll’s berry has entered this store,” he said.
The Good Life Grocery stopped carrying Driscoll’s last spring. “We had a number of customers ask us not to carry Driscoll’s berries until these disputes were settled,” said co-owner and produce manager Kayren Hudiburgh. “That’s a hard one to hold because they almost have a monopoly for raspberries.” Hudiburgh eventually found a small Watsonsville company, Medina Farms, which grows raspberries as well as strawberries. They cost more, but she said they are sweeter and fresher. “We are fortunate because we actually came in with a better product. Everyone loves them,” she said. It’s more work on her part however. Because Medina doesn’t deliver, she has to go to farmer’s markets to buy them. They also don’t farm blueberries, which she sources from farmer’s markets or the Wholesale Produce Market on Jerrold Avenue.
Relying on small, local, farms isn’t without other problems. One week in October, Good Life didn’t carry strawberries because a rainstorm damaged Californa crops. Hudiburgh struggled to get more information about the boycott to share when customers wonder why she doesn’t carry Driscoll’s. It would be ideal, she said, if there were some kind of handout she could distribute.
Simon Richard, Bi-Rite Market’s produce buyer, has had the same trouble getting specifics on the boycott, particularly whether Driscoll’s is worse than other companies. He’s even tried to contact farmers directly, without success. When in season, Richard primarily carriers berries from local growers, but added, “Driscoll’s is the only option in the winter months. They have a pretty high quality winter berry.”
Wholesaler Veritable Vegetable lists Driscoll’s on their availability chart, although they buy from a variety of local farms when berries are in season.
Watsonville-based Driscoll’s, which has offices on five continents, is difficult not to do business with. It is the biggest seller of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries in the U.S. Strawberries are its biggest commodity, having cornered 48 percent of the American organic, and 34 percent of the overall market.