Barack joins Whole Foods card-check snafu

Related stories: 'Whole Foods cancels non-union beef', 'Whole Foods goes back to non-union beef', 'UFW may face RICO charges over Whole Foods'

Organizer-in-chief already on the job

The United Farm Workers of America has a new ally in their protracted labor conflict with Beef Northwest: Barack Obama. On Aug. 4, the presidential hopeful sent a letter to John Wilson, a partner in Beef Northwest, urging him to accept the results of a card-check survey that showed a majority of Beef Northwest workers at a Boardman feedlot were in favor of union representation.

"In America, we should value the labor of every person and reward it with a few basic guarantees, such as fair wages and treatment, healthcare, and a dignified retirement," Obama wrote. "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 the first contract."

The UFW has been insisting for over a year that Beef Northwest workers at the feedlot desire union representation. Workers came to the organization for help, said UFW spokesman Steven Witte, saying they did not have adequate health insurance, were working under unsafe conditions, and were not treated with dignity and respect by their superiors.

The card-check survey was gathered by UFW representatives and counted by a Portland minister on June 13.

The workers want a union agreement similar to that at two recently unionized companies in the region, Willow Creek and Columbia River dairies, Witte said.

In response to the UFW's requests, Beef Northwest has repeatedly denied that their workers want to unionize, and said the results of the card-check survey are illegitimate because workers were coerced into signing the cards.

"The workers don't have any complaints," Wilson said in June.

Wilson said he is in a favor of a vote to determine if his workers want a union, but he will only accept results from a neutral, disinterested third party. Beef Northwest has made no attempt to set up such a vote, Wilson added.

"It wouldn't be independent if Beef Northwest instigated it," he said.

However, Beef Northwest did produce a petition signed by a majority of workers at the feedlot that said they did not want union representation.

Numerous third parties have attempted to resolve the dispute, including Gov. Ted Kulongoski's office, which sent aides to a meeting between Beef Northwest and the UFW.

The meeting lasted a couple of hours and was of "very little value," according to Wilson.

The UFW campaign to unionize the workers even led to a temporary boycott of Beef Northwest.

Country Natural Beef, a collective of beef producers who send their cattle to Beef Northwest's feedlots, at first decided to switch feedlots, under pressure from their largest customer, Whole Foods. But then, less than a month later, Whole Foods reversed itself, saying it wanted to remain neutral in the labor dispute.

Stacy Davies, a spokesman for County Natural Beef, said the card-check survey collected by the UFW was problematic because of the potential for coercion and peer pressure.

"The card-check is no more accurate than the petition held by Beef Northwest saying the workers don't want representation," Davies said.

On July 21, the feedlot was visited by members of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, who talked to the workers and attempted to get a clear view on whether they wanted a union or not. David Leslie, the executive director of the group, said he could not comment on what happened at the meeting, but that the UFW and Beef Northwest seemed to be talking to each other.

Wilson also said there is communication between the two parties.

"There have been ongoing discussions, none of which have reached any point of consensus yet," Wilson said.

As for the Obama letter, Wilson said he wrote Obama back, inviting him to tour the feedlot and eat a meal with him and some employees at the Spud Cellar, a popular watering hole in Boardman."I haven't heard anything back," Wilson said.


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