BOYCOTT DRISCOLL! (“We Don’t Know That”)

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Strawberries
Illustration by Carol Coogan (www.carolcoogandesign.com)

We all know Driscoll’s organic strawberries. But did you know that under the Driscoll name the family-owned company markets a full range of organic and conventional berries grown by other companies, particularly Berry-Mex in San Quintin, Mexico, and Sakuma Berry Farms in Burlington, Washington? The farm workers in both these growers live in substandard housing, in pesticide-laden fields, and are paid shockingly low wages, by the pound of berries picked. To survive, families need to have even young children join in the picking – and at even lower wages per pound! To make matters worse, the companies refuse to bargain with the pickers’ unions in Mexico and in Washington State. For over a year Driscoll has not been willing to meet with representatives of either union. Although Driscoll claims to require its suppliers to provide fair labor standards, it keeps marketing their berries without enforcing Driscoll “standards” or even, in the case of Berry-Mex in San Quintin, violations of Mexican labor laws. Sakuma Berry Farms has tried breaking the workers’ strike by importing temporary foreign labor under H2-A visas (permitted only when local labor is unavailable)!

The unions have sought to enlist the public in a boycott of Sakuma Berry Farms-produced berries and of the entire line of berries marketed by Driscoll, and they have also encouraged the public to exert pressure on retail chains to boycott Driscoll. The unions representing the Mexican pickers and those at Sakuma Berry Farms have pledged to maintain the strike until both unions have been recognized and bargained with. The Driscoll Boycott is patterned on the successful national–ultimately international–boycott of California table grapes in support of agricultural workers’ strikes in Delano, CA that ran from 1965 until Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers had contracts with the growers in Delano, CA in 1970. I remember well that our family abstained from buying table grapes during 1965-70, and I am sure that some of the oldsters who started the HWFC forty years ago were likewise boycotting grapes throughout those earlier years.

I particularly resonate with the support of the Driscoll boycott by the Fair World Project, “a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote organic and fair trade practices and transparent third-party certification of producers, manufacturers and products, domestically and abroad. Through consumer education and advocacy, FWP supports dedicated fair trade producers and brands, and insists on integrity in use of the term ‘fair trade’ in certification, labeling and marketing.”

FWP notes that local boycotts of Sakuma’s own branded berries have had such success that farmworkers are reporting packaging fresh berries increasingly for Driscoll’s, the national brand that was already one of Sakuma’s largest buyers, instead of under the now tainted Sakuma Brothers name. Driscoll’s has stated a commitment to community and sustainability, but nevertheless has continued to buy from Sakuma Berry Farms despite farmworkers’ protest of low wages − including wage theft and unfair piece rate agreement − poor housing, and poor working conditions including verbally abusive supervisors. Other groups such as Food First and La Via Campesina, which are committed to the fight against corporate agri-business dispossessing subsistence farmers have similarly supported the Driscoll’s boycott. Shouldn’t we, as buyers- and HWFC, as our cooperatively-owned vendor- consider the fairness of the labor standards of the producer/distributor of the products we respectively buy and sell?

Finally, a brief personal anecdote. My mother-in-law lived at the seacoast of Rhode Island. Her college best friend-turned-(ex)-sister-in-law – “Aunt Phoebe” to us – lived a scant seven miles away but never left her ancestral home. Her husband, “Uncle Eddie,” liked fishing on my mother-in-law’s ocean beach and regularly brought a present of grapes from Aunt Phoebe. Grandma kept telling her not to send grapes, because of the boycott. Aunt Phoebe (each time!); “We don’t know that.” This prompts me to ask, do we want HWFC to “not know” that there is good reason to boycott Driscoll’s berries? I believe that respect for the farm workers picking them demands we ask ourselves this question.

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Michael came to Albany for work at the NYS Legislature in 1986 and joined HWFC soon thereafter (the record of which was later lost).  By the time of his retirement he shamefully took advantage of the senior discount until he finally joined anew about five years ago.  A lifelong Peace and Justice activist, he participated in a sit-in in the Mayor’s Office while a senior in High School in 1946 to (successfully) integrate the public parks in Louisville, KY.  A life-long organic gardener and farmer, he helps his daughter Rebekah operate the Nine Mile Farm and CSA and takes care of the sheep and chickens and digs preparing the copious vegetable beds.