Beef Northwest employees to vote Nov. 6, 7, 8
NYSSA — Workers attending a meeting Tuesday at the Beef Northwest feedlot here said they’re hoping elections scheduled the second week of November will end an 18-month-long dispute between their employer and the United Farm Workers union.
Baker County rancher Dean Defrees, left, along with Beef Northwest employees, Barry Kane, center, and Mike Phelps, met Tuesday with workers at Beef Northwest’s feedlot in Nyssa. (Baker City Herald/Ed Merriman)
“I think everybody will be happy to vote and get it over with,” said Javier Conchas, a Beef Northwest feedlot worker who attended the meeting where ranchers Dean Defrees of Baker City and Dan Howard of Idaho handed out packets containing election notices, sample ballots and information about why Country Natural Beef got involved in organizing secret ballot elections for feedlot workers to vote on whether or not they want to be represented by United Farm Workers.
Elections are scheduled at Beef Northwest feedlots in Nyssa, Boardman and in Quincy, Wash.
“We take the UFW at their word that many of you signed cards sometime over the past two years asking for representation,” Defrees said. “We have seen the petition that a high percentage of you, the workers, circulated and signed and was presented to Whole Foods Market where you state an objection to unionization.”
Based on that conflicting information, Defrees said, “The true will of the workers is unclear to us.”
The Whole Foods Market chain, which is the biggest buyer of Country Natural Beef, has reported coming under an intensifying propaganda campaign orchestrated by the UFW and its supporters.
That type of activity targeting second parties not directly involved in a labor dispute is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act for most industries, but not for agriculture.
Country Natural Beef is pursuing state legislation to eliminate that loophole in Oregon, but in the meantime, Stacy Davies, a CNB rancher and spokesman, said prior to Tuesday’s meeting that conducting a secret ballot election is the best way to determine whether feedlot workers want to be represented by UFW.
“Country Natural Beef and our beef buyers care about the employees at Beef Northwest and we need to know what the employees truly want so we can back them,” Defrees said. “We believe the only way for your voices to be heard is through a secret ballot election.”
Defrees and Howard are among 120 ranchers — 16 in Baker County — who belong to CNB, an Oregon-based group that raises hormone-free cattle which are finished exclusively at Beef Northwest’s feedlot in Hermiston.
The election dates announced Tuesday are Nov. 7 at Quincy, Wash., Nov. 8 at Boardman and Nov. 9 at Nyssa. Voting at all three sites is scheduled in the lunch rooms at the feedlots from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
“It’s your decision. This is America. You have a right to have your say,” Howard said.
Defrees said CNB organized the elections at all three plants to give feedlot workers a chance to vote in secret ballot elections conducted by a neutral third party who “will keep every vote secret so neither the UFW nor Beef Northwest will know how any employee has voted in this election.”
Speaking in English and through an interpreter in Spanish, Defrees told workers attending Tuesday’s meeting in Nyssa that the elections will follow the guidelines and process set up by the National Labor Relations Board that governs elections of almost all other labor organizing efforts in the United States, except agriculture in Oregon and Washington.
That exemption is designed primarily to avoid labor strikes during the harvest season, because strikes then could lead to ruined crops.
Defrees said election notices issued by the the neutral third party, a retired mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, were also posted by CNB ranchers in areas with access to all employees.
The elections are scheduled on three separate days because the neutral third party will travel to each feedlot on election day to monitor the ballot boxes and oversee the process, Defrees said.
“Beef Northwest management has agreed to neutrality in the days leading up to the election, and they have agreed to abide by the outcome of the election,” Defrees said.
“The UFW has not yet agreed to either neutrality or to abide by the results. We ask any of you who feel harassment, coercion, threats or lobbying efforts regarding this election to contact your ERC (Employee Representative Council) representative,” Defrees said. Workers who experience any type of intimidation or other pressure to vote one way or the other are also invited to report it to Stacy Davies of CNB at 541-495-2263.
In addition to the mediator, a non-supervisory representative of Beef Northwest will be present to verify employment, Defrees said, adding that the UFW will be invited to send a representative to the election sites.
The UFW turned down an invitation to attend Tuesday’s meeting, Defrees said.
“Like all democratic elections your vote will be held confidential and only you will know whether you checked yes or no. This process is followed to avoid all forms of intimidation, coercion, punishment or harassment of individuals,” Defrees said.
The explanations and comments made during Tuesday’s meeting by Defrees and translated by Adriana Mesillas, who is also a volunteer translator for schools, came directly from the information packet distributed to the workers in Nyssa, Boardman and Quincy in the presence of journalists who covered and observed the meetings, which were all held during Tuesday lunch breaks at the feedlots.
In response to a question from feedlot worker Christian Marquez, who wanted confirmation that Beef Northwest would abide by the elections no matter the results, Barry Kane, the Nyssa yard manager for Beef Northwest, confirmed that the management has agreed to abide to do so.
Kane went on to say that the office staff will not be in the shop area where the ballot box is to be set up.
“I hope we can clear everything up. It’s been a year and a half already,” said Marquez. “I think it was good to meet today, and I think everybody will be happy to vote and get it over with,” Marquez said. “It was a good meeting.”
Andrea Cano of the Oregon Farm Worker Ministries group, which has supported the UFW’s organizing effort at Beef Northwest feedlots, said in an e-mail that it is important for CNB and its customers, including Whole Foods Market, Burgerville, McMenamins and New Seasons, to know that Beef Northwest “spent the last four months escalating divisive anti-union sentiment, instead of accepting a majority count on the (union) cards in June.”
“Furthermore, the workers now feel bullied and intimidated, especially after the most visible pro-union worker featured in a UFW flier was mocked on the Boardman feedlot,” Cano said.
“We would hope that ranchers and retailers that rely on and promote the quality of meat, plus the consumers would honor the workers as they seek to secure dignity and respect on the job, even more of an imperative now, given how the workers have been treated by the company since they began rightfully seeking representation by the United Farm Workers union almost 18 months ago, and the hostile environment which they have to face each day at work.”
Davies said CNB, Whole Foods Market and other retail customers have always maintained their support for the right of feedlot workers to seek union representation.
The dispute with the UFW, Davies contends, has been about whether to accept union cards circulated by union organizers, or to allow workers to decide the issue through a secret ballot election.
As for the allegations of harassment, poor working conditions and other claims made by the UFW and its supporters, including Oregon Farm Worker Ministries and the Organic Consumers Union, an investigation at the Boardman feedlot by James Reinmuth, a former professor and dean emeritus at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business, found the UFW allegations to be unfounded.
Davies asked Reinmuth to investigate working conditions at the Boardman feedlot.
Reinmuth said CNB paid his travel expenses and a $1,000 fee.
“During my meeting with BNW workers, I discerned no discontent with working conditions or management at the Boardman feedlot,” Reinmuth wrote in a report dated Sept. 21, after he talked with 21 workers on Sept. 15. “All the workers I met appear to be hard-working individuals who are simply trying to provide a decent living for themselves and their families.
“They seem to enjoy working at the Boardman feedlot since BNW appears to offer stable employment and they are accorded respect by BNW management,” Reinmuth wrote. “As noted earlier, there appears to be very little support for representation by UFW or any other labor union organization.
“Many workers offered strong condemnation of union representation, while a few expressed passive indifference toward union representation,” Reinmuth wrote. “None of the workers interviewed expressed support for union representation.”
Reinmuth said in a telephone interview this morning that Boardman workers told him UFW officials invited them to a barbecue, during which officials asked the workers if they supported their friends who work at a nearby dairy and belong to UFW.
Reinmuth said several feedlot workers told him they thought the cards they signed at the barbecue were in support of the dairy workers, not to indicate the feedlot workers want to join the union.