6/20/08

UFW may face RICO charges over Whole Foods

Related UFW-Whole Foods stories: here

Oregon's union-happy Gov. fumes

Just as Country Natural Beef, a co-op of Food Alliance-certified natural beef ranchers, made its first step outside the west, adding a member in Louisiana in early June, an ongoing labor dispute threatened to disrupt the co-op's supply chain.

The dispute, between the United Farm Workers union and the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman, Ore., where Country Natural Beef (CNB) sends the majority of its cattle to be fattened, has been dragging on several months but may be put to rest quickly now that CNB's largest customer, Whole Foods Markets has removed itself from the fray.

Prompted by a public involvement campaign organized by the United Farm Workers union, Whole Foods in late May released an official request that Country Natural Beef stop sending cattle to Beef Northwest and announced that it would no longer buy beef fattened at Beef Northwest. Last week, however, Whole Foods withdrew its request after meeting with CNB officials, who explained the labor dispute in greater detail.

Presented in the press as a fight between social responsibility and environmental responsibility, the dispute revolves around 80 workers at Beef Northwest and whether they want to unionize. United Farm Workers (UFW) has gotten involved to support the Beef Northwest workers, but the union's critics say they have been using pressure tactics on both the workers and third-party members of the feedlot's supply chain. In an interview with The Oregonian, Beef Northwest owner John Wilson said his workers are higher paid than most feedlot employees and that he has not heard any complaints from them. "If they want to be represented, we're great with that," he said. "If they want to stay independent, we're great with that, too. We just want them to be able to decide for themselves."

In last week's announcement Libba Letton, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the store's initial request was an effort to get the UFW to stage a vote and end the labor dispute, but was misunderstood as a sign of support for the UFW. "We have consequently withdrawn our request, so Country Natural Beef is continuing to place cattle with the Beef Northwest feedlot. It was a request we made for them to look at, but they never stopped putting cattle in the feedlot, and we have not stopped selling their beef."

In the absence of Oregon labor laws governing union organizing in agriculture, Beef Northwest and CNB have requested governor Ted Kulongoski's help in setting up a neutral election, and asked the National Labor Relations Board to resolve the dispute. If the dispute continues, Stacy Davies, marketing team leader for Country Natural Beef, told The Baker City Herald there is the possibility of a lawsuit against the UFW for damages caused by its targeting of third parties, such as Whole Foods.

(sustainableindustries.com)

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