2018 Leadership Award Winner Ramon Torres
Farm Workers’ Rights Activist and President, Familias Unidas por La JusticiaDebbie Koenig
May 01, 2018
Honored for leadership and organizing efforts in the formation of an independent indigenous farm worker labor union that won an historic collective bargaining agreement for farm workers dramatically improving the lives of thousands of farm workers and their families in Washington State.
On June 16, 2017, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), an independent farm workers union in Washington State, signed a historic contract with Sakuma Brothers Farms, among the largest berry growers in the state. It established baseline working conditions for all pickers at the farm, including a minimum wage of $15 per hour, protection against abuse, and grievance procedures for resolving disputes. Key to that achievement was Ramon Torres, president of FUJ.
Torres was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. He dreamed of becoming an architect as he helped his father with construction jobs. When Torres was 17, his father died, and Torres moved to California looking for work. He wound up picking grapes, his first exposure to the difficult life of migrant farm workers. “I thought it was normal that our wages got stolen, because we were immigrants,” he says. “There were some cases where we didn’t even have bathrooms or water to drink, but people were afraid to speak up.” Torres spent the next eight years as a migrant worker in California and Washington.
By 2013, Torres had moved to Burlington, Washington, and worked at Sakuma Brothers, where children as young as 12 worked full-time picking berries. “We were not covered under labor laws,” he says. “The kids were obligated to work and produce as much as an adult, without breaks or lunches, but they only got paid 85 percent of an adult’s wage.” When one worker, a family man, was fired for requesting a raise, Torres decided to start organizing. In the summer of 2013, Familias Unidas por la Justicia was born. The next three-plus years involved numerous actions including work stoppages, boycotts of Sakuma Brothers’ major clients, Driscoll’s and Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, and a class-action lawsuit seeking paid rest breaks. In 2017, the group won union recognition and the right to collective bargaining.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia now represents more than 500 Triqui, Mixteco, and Spanish-speaking workers at Sakuma Brothers—the first independent farm workers union led by indigenous workers in the United States. In the first year under the union contract, no farm workers at Sakuma Brothers were under 16 years old. And thanks to that class-action lawsuit, Washington now has a law requiring paid rest breaks for all of the state’s farm workers, not just those in the union.
After the experience of organizing FUJ—and winning a fair contract—Torres began a new project: a farm worker-led cooperative. “Throughout the whole campaign of organizing, we were always up against the same problems with the companies, the managers, supervisors, and bosses,” he says. “The only solution we saw was to establish our own cooperatives, led by the farm workers.” This small group currently farms four acres of strawberries and two acres of blueberries, all organic. “Our plan is that in ten years this cooperative will be working 100 acres of land together,” says Torres. The cooperative will be selling their produce under the label Tierra y Libertad, which translates into Land and Liberty.
The 2018 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award recipients will be honored at a ceremony co-hosted by Hyatt on May 5 in Chicago. Learn more about all our 2018 Leadership Award winners.