Union vote set at Beef NW

John Boyer (left) and Skye Krebs, both ranchers for Country Natural Beef, hand out letters to workers at Beef Northwest's Boardman feedlot. <br><I>Staff photo by Erin Mills

For months, well-meaning outsiders have tried to intervene in a dispute between three Beef Northwest feedlots and their employees - without success.

Enter a group of ranchers who have a direct stake in resolving the issue and a reputation for getting things done.

The ranchers descended on three Beef Northwest feedlots Tuesday afternoon to resolve the labor dispute that has stood at an impasse for months.

As members of the ranching cooperative Country Natural Beef - one of Beef Northwest's biggest customers - they visited the feedlots at Boardman, Nyssa and Quincy, Wash. Three of them, John Boyer, Skye Krebs and Scott McClaran, arrived at the Boardman feedlot. Their mission: To tell workers about an upcoming vote that will attempt to answer the question of whether the workers want union representation.

The United Farm Workers of America has insisted for well more than a year workers at the Boardman feedlot desire union representation. UFW spokesman Steve Witte said workers contacted the union with a list of complaints about the working conditions at the feedlot. The workers did not have adequate health insurance, he said, were working under unsafe conditions and were not treated with respect by their superiors. Furthermore, he said, workers were afraid to speak up about their wishes for a union because they feared the owners' retribution.

On June 13, a Portland minister counted a card-check survey that UFW representatives had gathered that showed a majority of workers wanted to join a union.

Meanwhile, Beef Northwest produced a petition that showed a majority of workers did not want to unionize.

John Wilson, a partner in the company, said the signatures on the UFW's card-check survey were coerced and the workers had no complaints. Wilson said he only would accept results from a vote a neutral third party organized.

But a neutral third party that satisfied both Beef Northwest and the UFW proved very difficult to find. Several people and organizations attempted to foster consensus between the two parties, including Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. A business school dean from the University of Oregon visited the feedlot to talk to workers, and even Barack Obama got involved - in August he wrote a letter to John Wilson in support of the UFW.

Country Natural Beef was embroiled in the dispute almost from the beginning, because it finishes all its cattle at the Boardman feedlot. In June, its largest retailer, Whole Foods Markets, said they would stop buying Country Natural Beef if the co-op did not find another feedlot in which to finish its cattle. Whole Foods quickly reversed its decision under pressure from customers who feared the boycott would hurt Country Natural Beef, but the ranching co-op pledged to find a solution to the problem.

"The UFW has repeatedly pressured Country Natural Beef and our retail partners to intervene in this dispute and force Beef Northwest to enter contract negotiations immediately," Country Natural Beef representatives said in a news release. "There is evidence through signed petitions, interviews and retraction cards that many of the workers do not want representation. There is also evidence that many workers do want representation. The only democratic way to allow free choice is through a secret ballot election."

Of the 35 or so workers who will be affected by the union vote, about 25 showed up in a break room at the enormous feedlot to hear the ranchers speak. The election, the ranchers told them, will be on Nov. 7, 8 and 9 at Quincy, Boardman and Nyssa, respectively.

Jeff Clark, a retired mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, will conduct the election, and workers who are absent the day of the election must come to the feedlot to vote.

Bonnie Hamlin, one of the workers, asked if the UFW would accept the results of the vote.

"If they accept it, they accept it, if they don't ... You are the people who care for our cattle, and we want you to decide, then we'll be together," said Scott McClaran, one of the ranchers.

Another employee, Rich Williams, asked if there was going to be forum to discuss the pros and cons of unionizing. Several people echoed his question, including a few who spoke through an interpreter.

"They don't know how they are going to get the right answers," the interpreter said.

Wes Killian, a yard manager, said the meeting was not the right place to discuss the advantages of unionizing.

"The company's stance is and always has been neutral," he said. "If you want to have pro and con conversations among yourselves, that's fine."

After the meeting, Hamlin said she thought the workers would vote against unionizing. Their main concern, she said, was paying union dues for which they might not see much benefit.

"This company has been good about providing solutions to problems," she said. "It's a good company to work for."

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