Union proposal has local ties

By ED MERRIMAN, Baker City Herald August 28, 2008 12:43 pm

As the nation celebrates Labor Day this weekend, Sen. Hilary Clinton, Robert Kennedy Jr., and other speakers at the United Farm Workers national convention in California are supporting passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers in Baker County and across the nation to unionize.

Baker County ranchers who raise cattle for Country Natural Beef wound up in the middle of the political battle over a key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act when Sen. Barack Obama weighed in on a labor dispute between the UFW and the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman that finishes cattle for Country Natural Beef.

In an Aug. 4 letter to John Wilson, an owner of Beef Northwest, Obama wrote of his “concerns about the breakdown in communication between Beef Northwest Feeders and the United Farm Workers.”

The UFW has demanded that Beef Northwest recognize card checks circulated among feedlot employees by union organizers. UFW officials claim they have collected signed cards from a majority of Beef Northwest workers who want to join the union.

Obama, in his letter to Wilson, wrote: “I encourage you to recognize the card check election of June 13, and to negotiate with your employees’ chosen bargaining agent, the United Farm Workers.

“All workers should be free to form a union, and if they choose to form a union, management should negotiate in good faith to reach first contract,” Obama wrote. “I am committed to the ability of our nation’s agricultural workers to organize, to receive a decent wage, and to have a safe working environment.”

Wilson, along with ranchers heading up Country Natural Beef and officials with Whole Foods Markets, the largest buyer of Country Natural Beef products, have resisted the UFW’s call to accept the cards as proof that the workers want union representation.

Instead, Beef Northwest and the ranchers have insisted that feedlot employees be given the opportunity to vote on union representation in a secret ballot election.

Wilson and Stacy Davies, a rancher and spokesman for Country Natural Beef, contend the secret ballot vote is the fairest way to determine the workers’ wishes in an atmosphere free of pressure from the union or Beef Northwest.

Davies said a secret ballot vote is the heart of America’s democratic election process and is also the method authorized under the existing National Labor relations Act for workers to vote for or against union representation.

“I hate to see Barack Obama politicizing this. I hate to see the lives of workers caught up in politics,” Davies said.

He also said he is disappointed that  Obama and other Democratic leaders  are siding with union demands to impose union representation on workers through cards collected door-to-door by union organizers, rather than supporting the current system of secret ballot elections.

“The first job of the U.S. president is to uphold democracy,” Davies said. “We have fought wars and worked across the world to allow democratic votes to be held. A secret ballot election is essential to democracy, and this card check election does not adhere to the principals of a secret ballot election.”

 “I am concerned the public doesn’t have any idea what movement is going on here,” Davies said, adding that replacing secret ballot elections with union card checks is just one of many changes in collective bargaining laws that would be imposed if the Employee Free Choice Act is adopted by Congress.

“Nationally, there is a huge movement underway to change the labor laws,” Davies said.

Currently, agricultural workers are not covered by the collective bargaining laws in Oregon, which is one reason the UFW has demanded recognition of the card check system in the dispute with Beef Northwest.

Union officials say secret ballot elections have been abused by employers.

Web sites for the United Farm Workers and their affiliate union, the AFL-CIO, are promoting one million signatures on petitions calling for Congress and the next president to pass the Employee Free Choice Act as a means of restoring balance to laws governing union organizing efforts.

“The reason to not proceed wit the type of election Beef Northwest feedlot is calling for is not because it has a secret ballot. In this sense, it’s misleading to think of this as simply an issue of secret ballots vs cards,” said Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon who wrote a 50-page report on the topic called “American Rights at Work.

Calls to UFW and Oregon Farm Worker Ministries for comments were referred to Lafer, who said current collective bargaining laws lack good prohibitions on harassment and coercive practices by employers, which are essential for a secret ballot vote to be legitimate.

“The real question is: If a majority of workers have signed a card, the third party neutral person could take each person who signed a card aside in a private room and ask them if they really meant it,” Lafer said in an e-mail response.

“Why wouldn’t that be enough to have their union recognized? Why should they have to go through a Soviet-style sham election season?” Lafer asked.