WA State Dairy Workers Fighting For Union Rights

By Dylan Anderson, United Farm Workers Internet Communications

Ruby Ridge is a large dairy located in Eastern Washington. An overwhelming majority of workers employed at the dairy signed union authorization cards asking the UFW to represent them. Workers complained about not being allowed to take breaks, take timely lunch periods, and some even complained about being told to drink water out of a hose used to wash cow manure off the dairy floor. The workers say they continue to not to have any job benefits beyond an hourly wage. And, workers have reported that owner Dick Bengen has often carried a rifle with him on his large dairy farm that he uses to scare the workers into line.

According to working Miguel Cuevas, Mr. Bengen made a point of explaining the special purpose of this rifle to worker Cuevas, when he told him, “This rifle is for those people with the union.”

Unthinkable conditions for dairy workers are not uncommon. According to Rebecca Clarren’s report “The dark side of dairies,” from 2004 to 2007, 7 percent of US dairy workers experienced injury annually, compared to 4.5 for all private industries. Furthermore, Clarren reports that this number is artificially low due to more lenient state and federal reporting requirements of the agriculture industry, and federal labor laws that cover other labor, but not dairy workers. In 2008, federal and state officials inspected only 42 of the West’s (roughly) 4,150 dairies. Federal OSHA and state officials often target industries that are considered dangerous. But they fail to pursue the dairy industry due to the few complaints from dairy workers.

According to Clarren, dairy owners orchestrate the inspections and threaten workers to ensure inspections go on without any incidents. Of the West’s nearly 50,000 dairy workers, a majority of them are immigrants. As many are undocumented Spanish-only speakers, they cannot risk losing their (minimal) pay, despite the dangers of the job. Without union protection, workers live with these conditions for fear that they will easily lose their jobs, or even deported.

This is all part of a national trend. In 2004, the Associated Press found that between 1996 and 2002 Mexican workers were 80 percent more likely to die on the job than native-born workers. These death rates are greatest in the Southern and Western states, with Washington (Ruby Ridge’s home state) having one of the most consistently high rates in the West. The Associate Press linked the cause of this trend back to a similar pattern that we believe exists at Ruby Ridge: employers throw workers into jobs with little safety training or precautions, and workers’ language skills or immigration status prevent them from raising complaints.

When the UFW approached Ruby Ridge owners Dick and Ruby Bengen, their good faith offer was flatly rejected. Workers said the Bengens then unleashed their retaliatory campaign against workers, firing over a dozen suspected union activists. For instance, Terecita Anguiano, a mother of two, reports how the company called her and co-workers into a room and kept them there until

they forced us to sign a petition where we (against our will) renounced being part of the union. They told us that if we didn’t sign that meant that we were against them and they would fire us.

She and the other workers still have hope. With the support of the UFW, a number of those workers have filed suit against Ruby Ridge. Ruby Ridge subsequently filed what we have called a SLAPP lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against both Ruby Ridge workers and the UFW in a blatant attempt to silence workers. Anguiano said:

We are strong and we have the support of the union and others who are supporting the lawsuit, which we are now a part of, and we will continue until we obtain our contract.

Ruby Ridge is part of the Darigold cooperative, a large dairy processing company headquartered in Seattle, WA. The milk the dairy produces is marketed under the Darigold brand. UFW has brought reports of the abuses at Ruby Ridge to Darigold, but they have failed to respond and we believe they have failed to ensure workers are treated with respect, with basic benefits, and with safety precautions. Last month, close to 200 people gathered in front of Darigold’s headquarters in Seattle. Labor leaders, including the Secretary-Treasurer of the WA State Labor Federation and Michael Beranbaum of the Joint Council of Teamsters, who represents Darigold employees at their processing plants, joined the call for justice for Ruby Ridge workers. (That’s right, Darigold processing plant workers have a union; the workers who milk the cows don’t.)

We’re looking for your support to request that Darigold ensure workers’ protection. We see the public as an important part of the progressive voice for Western dairy workers. You can help in the following ways:

  • Add your name to the petition we’ll present to Darigold shortly before the December holidays here: http://action.ufw.org/dgpetition
  • Send out this information and the link to the petition through your organization’s social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.)
  • Send out this information and the link to the petition to family and friends on your personal social media pages
  • Post this message on any blogs or publications your organization produces
[Photo By jrubinic]

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