Barack wants card-check beef at Whole Foods

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Union-backed candidate protests against secret-ballot

The letter Barack Obama wrote to Beef Northwest regarding the company's employees joining United Farm Workers union has attracted the attention of the John McCain for President Committee. "The McCain campaign has copies of the letter, and we have had conversations with them," said John Wilson, an owner of Beef Northwest, headquartered in North Powder.

Wilson said he's been amazed at the attention Obama's letter has received, considering the dispute between UFW and Beef Northwest directly involves fewer than 250 people.

That dispute is over the process by which workers at Beef Northwest feedlots, including one in Hermiston, should decide whether they want to join the UFW.

Union officials contend a majority of workers have already indicated they want to join the union, by filling out union cards.

Beef Northwest has proposed a confidential vote.

And the ranchers who belong to Country Natural Beef, whose cattle are finished at Beef Northwest's Hermiston feedlot, recommend a secret ballot election.

The labor dispute affects roughly 80 Beef Northwest feedlot employees and 140 ranchers in Oregon and other Western states, including 16 families in Baker County, who raise cattle for Country Natural Beef.

Obama's letter is dated Aug. 4, two days after the Oregon Farm Worker Ministry group, picketed a Whole Foods Market in the Portland area to put pressure on Beef Northwest owners to accept the cards collected by union organizers and to negotiate a union contract.

Whole Foods is Country Natural Beef's biggest customer, buying about 75 percent of the beef finished at the Boardman feedlot.

"The Obama letter was circulated by the UFW two weeks before we received it," Wilson said.

Stacy Davies, a rancher and Country Natural Beef spokesman, said agriculture is not included under collective bargaining laws prohibiting secondary boycotts, along with requirements to hold secret ballot elections to validate employee support for union representation. Those provisions are part of the current National Labor Relations Act, which McCain supports.

Davies said Country Natural Beef is urging the Oregon Legislature to pass collective bargaining to protect agricultural employers and employees.

The card check system favored by the UFW and the AFL-CIO are key provisions of the proposed federal Employee Free Choice Act supported by Obama, Davies said.

While union Web sites espouse the need for a card check system to avert employer harassment and to make it easier for workers to choose union representation, business-sponsored Web sites warn that the card check system would force unionization on workers and employers, and that allowing union organizers to collect signatures on the cards could expose workers to intimidation if they oppose joining the union.

"We need to inspire union members to actively support the Employee Free Choice Act," wrote Fred Azcarte, AFL-CIO voice at work director, in a letter to AFL-CIO members. "We need them fired up and ready to take to the streets if that's what it takes. That is why we have initiated the million-member mobilization to gather one million signatures supporting the law."

According to the AFL-CIO, UFW Web sites, "some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could," based on research conducted by Peter D. Hart Research.

However conservative groups, including The Heritage Foundation, condemn the Employee Free Choice Act as misleading because it "would require companies to recognize a union without a private election, once organizers collect union cards signed by a majority" of workers.

According to The Heritage Foundation Web site, current labor law requires the National Labor Relations Board to order a secret ballot vote to be held once at least 30 percent of a company's workers have signed union cards.

"The Employee Free Choice Act would strip workers of their fundamental rights and leave them more vulnerable to pressure than before," according to an article by James Sherk and Paul Kersey posted on The Heritage Foundation Web site.

According to information on the Union Facts Web site, union membership in the United States has declined from 33 percent in 1960 to 12.5 percent today. When government unions are subtracted, union membership amounts to about 8 percent of all workers nationwide.

Unions contend the decline is due to employers intimidating workers as well as restrictions on union organizing activities incorporated into the National Labor Relations Act and other laws under Republican administrations.

The Committee For Union Facts, however, thinks the decline is due to public concerns about union corruption and misuse of union dues and pension funds.

Davies said he sees the Obama letter as an important document revealing the candidate's willingness to substitute union cards for a secret ballot vote. Wilson thinks it's likely that the letter is the result of a blunder by an Obama campaign worker who didn't understand the dispute between Beef Northwest and UFW.

"It appeared to me that whatever lower-level staffer put a signature stamp on the letter and sent it out did not have any idea what was going on, or simply responded to a UFW request," Wilson said.

"Union campaign contributions have obviously had an effect on the Obama campaign," Wilson said. "The union uses everything they can to pressure us. In all honesty, we didn't take the letter very seriously at all."

When the Obama letter arrived at Beef Northwest headquarters in North Powder two weeks after it had been circulated and posted on the UFW Web site, Wilson said he responded by inviting Obama to tour the Boardman feedlot, eat lunch and visit with employees to find out how they feel about wages, working conditions and union representation.

"So far, we haven't had any response to our invitation," Wilson said.

"Our position has been constant throughout all of this," Wilson said, which is that employees need to decide on union representation through some type of confidential process that is monitored by a neutral party.

Regarding the Employee Free Choice Act, Wilson said he has seen two or three different drafts, but he's not sure what's in the most recent version to be submitted to Congress next year.

"If the card count is included, to me that would be alarming, unless there are protections built in for both employees and employers," Wilson said.


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