The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Dairy Workers Continue Union Struggle, UFW Fights from Sidelines

Labor law gaps allow bosses to exploit immigrant workers

by Rebecca Clarren

Hispanic laborers at an Oregon factory farm -- representing some of the least protected workers in the nation -- fight to see the company recognize their union.

Boardman, Oregon; Dec. 9, 2004 – In a crowded trailer park, not far from the highway that cuts through this small central Oregon town like a razor, the door of dairy worker Reginaldo Rodriguez De La Torre’s home offers thin refuge from winter’s thieving cold. Inside this narrow trailer, where family photos cling to the walls and a Spanish talk show booms from the corner television, Rodriguez perches on the couch, a silver crutch gripped in his left hand, a mask of anxiety stretching the corners of his eyes.

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In mid-November, while working as a milker at one of Threemile Canyon Farm’s three dairies, a massive operation 20 miles to the west of Boardman, Oregon, a herd of young cows charged him. Rodriguez leapt onto a fence to get out of the way, but not in time. His right leg, caught on the wrong side of the metal fence, was crushed against the metal by 200 cows. Now, Rodriguez is still unable to stand without a crutch.

"If I put any weight on it, it feels like nails are being driven into my leg," says Rodriguez in a quiet but steady torrent of Spanish. As he speaks, his four-year-old daughter sprints in circles throughout the small room. "If I can’t work, how will I pay for Christmas presents for my children? I have a very small savings, but that’s disappearing."

Although workers compensation insurance entitles him to lost wages, so far he has not received any money. And Rodriguez worries that, even if his leg does improve, the dairy will not give him his job back. That happened to other injured co-workers, he says, and it would be in keeping with the general tone at Threemile, where he says workers are routinely treated like second-class citizens. That is why since January 2003 Rodriguez and a host of his co-workers have been trying to unionize Threemile Canyon.

"These problems are not unique to Threemile, but it is unique to find so many dairy workers willing to speak out and repeatedly put their names on the line. That’s no small act of courage." -- Erik Nicholson, UFW

They say that with the United Farm Workers union supporting them, workers would have more respect, better wages and a safer workplace. Yet after nearly two years, the dairy still is not unionized and the struggle remains a challenge.

The Threemile Canyon workforce is made up of nearly all Mexican immigrants, the vast majority monolingual Spanish speakers with scant options for better jobs. Compare their negligible political clout with that of Threemile Canyon Farms, one of the largest dairy operations in the country. With 35,000 cows, a potato and alfalfa farm, and a composting operation, Threemile generates an estimated $250 million for the local economy. Even though the union says it has authorization cards from nearly 80 percent of the dairy’s 140 employees, the management refuses to negotiate, saying workers are treated fairly already and that most do not want to join a union.

In a federal and state system of weak labor laws, local politicians have remained uninvolved. Despite the odds, these workers, driven by the desire of so many immigrants to better their children’s futures, show no sign of backing down.

At the root of their struggle is the fact that basic labor laws found in other industries do not apply to them.

"These problems are not unique to Threemile, but it is unique to find so many dairy workers willing to speak out and repeatedly put their names on the line. That’s no small act of courage," said Erik Nicholson, regional director of the United Farm Workers of America. "Many of these workers aren’t familiar with their rights in this country and the issues that we’ve heard about at Threemile only take advantage of that. It’s the haunting image I have of the modern day slave."

Across town from Rodriguez’s trailer, eight Threemile Canyon dairy workers cluster around folding tables in the local grange, their chocolate eyes flashing as they talk about their jobs. For ten hours of work a day, five days a week, they receive a salary of $550 and no overtime pay. If there are 31 days in a month, they are not paid for the 31st day. While they would like more than their allotted one week off a year, workers say that if they miss a day, even for a family emergency or visit to the doctor, they fear they will be fired.

"We’re disposable to them, we’re like a machine. I don’t think they see us as real people," says Julio Arturo Sepulveda, spitting his Spanish in the air like dynamite. "I need this job. I feed my family with this job, but it’s not right."

At the root of their struggle is the fact that basic labor laws found in other industries do not apply to them. Like all agricultural employees, dairy workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. But because dairy work is year-round, they are also omitted from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

With neither of these laws to guard the gate, dairy workers lack the legal right to form a union or gather as a group to confront an employer with workplace concerns, and they have no general protection against employer misrepresentation. Additionally, because they are exempt from a portion of the Fair Labor Standards Act, they do not have the right to overtime pay. This makes dairy workers the least protected laborers in the country, says attorney Mark Wilk of the non-profit Oregon Law Center.

Without any legal structure for organizing, the union has still managed from its role on the sidelines to put pressure on the dairy.

"Dairy folks are legally in the worst of all worlds. There really is no federal law at all to protect them," said Wilk. The majority of his clients are Hispanic dairy workers, and Wilk says their Mexican and Guatemalan origin is part of why the laws remain weak. "This is the last bastion of feudalism. The ugly reality of the world that my clients live in is shocking. We’re the richest country in the history of the world; we can do a better job making sure all workers have minimum standards of decency."

Without any legal structure for organizing, the union has still managed from its role on the sidelines to put pressure on the dairy. Organizers have spurred articles in local and regional media, written letters to Oregon legislators and the Mexican consulate, and instigated an Oregon State Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigation, which resulted in 12 citations against Threemile.

Subsequently, the dairy has unilaterally increased workers’ wages by $200 a month, offered health insurance to its workers, and has started to provide the required safety equipment and training for the use of hazardous chemicals, says Nicholson.

The union has also pressured the companies that buy milk from the dairy to take responsibility for the working conditions of their suppliers. Since then, Safeway has stopped doing business with the dairy and Tillamook Cheese is only taking enough milk to fulfill its pre-existing contract.

"We’re not interested in increasing the amount of milk we’re getting from the dairy and in large part that has to do with the fact that they haven’t shown much willingness to take care of their farm labor issues," says Christie Lincoln, spokesperson for Tillamook Cheese. "We really believe in doing business with companies that respect people and have fair labor practices."

Additionally, in response to allegations of sexual discrimination at the dairy -- which has never hired female employees, except for office staff -- national activists from groups such as the National Organization of Women and the Feminist Majority have rallied their members to join in the union fight. Last month, the coalition of groups sent out an email to its members and within two weeks they had a 12,000-signature petition asking Sorrento Cheese, which receives milk from Threemile, to pressure the dairy to negotiate with the union.

Despite such national attention, Threemile Canyon maintains that there is no need to unionize the dairy because its workers do not want one.

"We have an ongoing commitment to environmental and socially sustainable business practices," said Threemile Canyon spokesperson Len Bergstein. "It isn’t apparent to anybody that the workers want the union except a handful of people. This is no more than a series of attempts to pressure a business enterprise that workers depend on."

He added that the company has a petition signed by over 100 of the 140 dairy workers saying they do not want a union. Union supporters, however, maintain that management circulated the petition and that many workers were afraid their jobs would be jeopardized if they did not sign on. Clearly, the fight is far from resolved.

Yet as the holidays draw near, the workers say they are even more dedicated to the struggle; not one of them has had Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years Day off since they have worked at the dairy, nor has management compensated them for their time with additional pay.

"Just like white people have a right to get paid for working on the holidays, we want equality," said Alvaro Caldera, pounding his fist on the table. "We’re not asking for millions of dollars; we’re asking for what’s just."

His friend Sepulveda leaned in from across the table, adding, "I’ll keep going with this struggle. This is about respect for us as Mexicans. Even if I’m fired, others will continue the fight. We’re their workforce and we’re fed up with the injustices and we’re not going to take it anymore."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Rebecca Clarren is a contributing journalist.

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