Country Natural Beef (CNB) – a rancher-owned cooperative – finds itself in an unenviable position that serves as both a warning and reminder to livestock producers, especially those willing to brand a product all the way to retail: there are those in the world willing to sacrifice you for something they want.
In this case, it’s the United Farm Workers (UFW). You might recall UFW pressured Whole Foods to abandon CNB product last summer because they claimed CNB beef was fed at a feedlot – Beef Northwest (BNW) Feeders – that wasn’t allowing its employees to unionize. That was the claim.
In fact, according to Stacy Davies of the Roaring Springs Ranch, a CNB member, neither the rancher-owned cooperative nor BNW have encouraged or discouraged the feedlot employees from unionizing.
“The workers at BNW provide superb care to our livestock while they’re at the feedlot. We believe those workers have the right to the same freedoms and choices the rest of us have,” explains Davies, on behalf of CNB. “In this issue our sympathies are totally with the workers, who need to have a fair, credible democratic manner to choose whether they want organized representation or not. We will support they decision to unionize or not to unionize.”
So far, the process has been one-sided.
“In June of 2007, a UFW official contacted CNB and told us we needed to force Beef Northwest to immediately accept UFW as the feedlot workers’ representative,” explains Davies. “Since then, UFW has pressured our retailers to put pressure on BNW to unionize.”
Unbeknownst to BNW at the time, UFW organizers were throwing barbeques for the feedlot workers and encouraging them to sign union cards. It’s unclear whether the employees realized what they were signing up for. For that matter, it’s unclear how many actually signed cards; UFW won’t provide the information.
However, there’s evidence through signed petitions, interviews and a desire to retract signed union cards that many of the workers don’t want union representation. UFW used the same tactics to force a neighboring dairy to unionize. Reports are the workers there are less than enamored with what the union has done for them.
So, why can’t the feedlot workers and feedlot simply decide for themselves?
There’s a hornet’s nest of issues involved. Oregon, where BNW is located, doesn’t have farm labor laws in place to resolve union issues. As well, the National Labor Relations Act prohibits pressuring second-party entities in labor disputes, but that Act does not cover farm labor. The Catch-22 maze of laws that should apply but don’t, or should be in existence but aren’t, is mind-numbing.
CNB has tried everything to find a way for the workers to resolve the issue of being able to fairly choose whether they want to be unionized, something that apparently they never requested in the first place: requesting UFW to go to the feedlot with them and visit with the workers, which UFW refused; a sit-down with the state governor; hiring the dean emeritus of the University of Oregon School or Business to conduct a third-party survey of the workers; and working with ecumenical ministry of Oregon. All to no avail.
So, CNB has taken the matter into its own hands. They’ve adopted the National Labor Relations Act as a guide to settle the dispute. As such, they will conduct a third-party secret ballot election for the feedlot workers. The vote is scheduled for Nov. 9. CNB doesn’t know whether UFW will recognize the results of that election, whatever they are.
“BNW has signed a Memorandum of Agreement binding them to the outcome of the election,” explains Davies. “Representatives from CNB and several of our retailers met with UFW Oct. 22 and invited them to be a part of the process. They refused.”
Keep in mind, CNB has plenty at stake. Taking a stand for the feedlot workers could alienate customers as much as it could garner support. Left unchecked, though, letting UFW continue to run roughshod intimidating CNB retailers, neither CNB nor the BNW feedlot workers stand to gain anything.