Originally posted by David Chen, June 24, 2014
Henry Bierlink published an editorial titled, “Whatcom Farm Friends back Sakuma Brothers in labor dispute,” on April 17, 2014 in The Bellingham Herald. Bierlink is the executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends, representing Whatcom County raspberry farmers. Bierlink’s article is critical of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the local union of migrant farmworkers that is demanding a contract from Sakuma, and is also demeaning to supporters of Familias Unidas. Bierlink skates around the suite of complaints levied against Sakuma by the over 400 members of Familias Unidas. He acknowledges that “farm managers don’t manage every situation perfectly,” but insists that to “demonize” Sakuma and its customers is “simply wrong, irresponsible, and intentionally divisive. Watching a family that endured the WWII internment camps go through another fear-based torment is painful.”
To be clear, Familias Unidas is not attempting to demonize Sakuma; rather, as their name suggests, they seek justice for themselves and their families; they are publicly speaking a truth about systemic exploitation as Sakuma Berry Farms. Bierlink’s invocation of the Sakuma family’s Japanese heritage is inappropriate. He equates experiencing a boycott with suffering through internment camps, drawing from a history of discrimination in what seems to us a manipulative way. His phrase “fear-based torment” is not descriptive of a boycott situation, which is entirely different from an internment camp.
Furthermore, while Sakuma is painted as a local family farm, while in actual fact, Sakuma Farms is a large corporate conglomerate, spanning multiple states, with a huge California-based international root stock business in addition to the many farms of fruit it grows and sells under multiple labels. This is a struggle with a large corporation, not a small-farm local family.
Bierlink then gives support to Sakuma’s attempt to receive foreign guest workers under the H-2A program, which they have since abandoned, amidst mounting public objection and lack of demonstration of a labor shortage.
Bierlink proceeds to mischaracterize the efforts of Familias Unidas and their supporters. He claims that the aim of their activism is “to aggravate the ever-present tension that exists between employers and employees. We question why anyone would support efforts to polarize communities rather than to unite them.”
In this statement, Bierlink fails to capture that Familias Unidas is operating within this very “ever-present tension,” attempting to guarantee the very basics of dignity and a living wage despite these being at odds with Sakuma’s financial interests. Bierlink offers some utopic notion of uniting polarized communities, as if migrant farmworker activism is somehow responsible for the polarization in the first place. Farmworkers asked for months—years in fact— to cooperatively negotiate a fair contract with Sakuma and only resorted to a strike when Sakuma did not respond with good faith efforts. We believe it that Bierlink’s claim that “farmers are willing to engage in responsible discussions” was repeatedly demonstrated to be untrue, as Sakuma did not follow through with or honor its agreements with workers.
As we are some of the supporters of whom Bierlink speaks, we find Bierlink’s closure disrespectful: “We resist the temptation to demagogue complex issues like farm labor and expect the same from others.” Bierlink, seems to use the word “demagogue,” to establish himself on moral or intellectual high ground, or as the calm voice of reason. In our view, the farmer workers and their supporters have been reasonable and patient, yet diligent in trying to stand up for justice when none was forthcoming after years of hoping and waiting.
As ethical people and people of faith who believe in justice, we find it unacceptable that the well-being of migrant farmworkers is being sacrificed in the name of profit. We are not alone in this stance as other faith communities, and even some local farm owners, have expressed similar support for the farmworkers. We wonder whether Bierlink can speak in a fair and balanced way on this matter, given his own financial ties in the farming community.
As Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel has written, “Philosophical intelligence is never so truthful, clean, and precise as when it starts from oppression and does not have to defend any privileges, because it has none.” In a similar sense, Bierlink’s desire to defend his position of privilege seems to annul his argument. We are reminded that for Sakuma and Bierlink, a contract means a difference of profit margin; the farmworkers, a contract is the difference between a life of dignity and a life of great hardship;.
Acting from compassion, we continue to support Familias Unidas por la Justicia, and will do so until the well-being of the migrant farmworkers is respected.
Dussel citation: pg. 4, Dussel, Enrique. Philosophy of Liberation. New York: Orbis Books, 1985.