With chants of “si’ se puede,” meaning, “we can do it,” more than 60 protesters were hopeful their voices would be heard Saturday near Boardman in an effort to support unionization of employees at Beef Northwest.
The gathering included employees from the company’s farms in Nyssa and Boardman, as well as a contingency of students from Whitman College in Walla Walla and representatives from United Farm Workers.
Claudia Galvan, a secretary with United Farm Workers, said employees want increased wages, better medical insurance and to be treated with respect.
Galvan and Arturo Sepulveda, area union organizer with United Farm Workers, said when the company caught wind of union organizing efforts, it employed tactics to discourage unionization.
“They will give them money to attend meetings and they’ll have barbecues – basically they’re trying to bribe workers to not have a contract,” Galvan alleges.
“They recognize the leaders – the ones who spread the word about the union and have them work apart. Workers who used to work together, now they have them separate,” Sepulveda added.
John Wilson, a partner with Beef Northwest, told the EO Friday he would comment on the protest if it occurred, however, calls to his cell phone were unanswered and messages were not returned by press time.
On the Beef Northwest Web site, the company responds to questions regarding union contact with the company.
The site said the company became aware on June 5 United Farm Workers had been talking to employees.
“We discussed entering into a neutrality agreement with the UFW,” the Web site said. “That agreement includes the process by which a neutral third party is utilized to verify the union authorization cards submitted and whether a majority of authorization cards had been obtained by the UFW.”
Beef Northwest said the UFW called off talks after not agreeing to the neutrality process, which used language from provisions outlined in the Oregon Revised Statute.
“This process assured total employee confidentiality by putting the authority in the hands of a neutral third party with no input from Beef Northwest or UFW,” the Web site said.
Beef Northwest contends employees should be given an opportunity to withdraw cards in the event they didn’t understand, were coerced into signing, or merely changed their mind.
“The supervisors treat the workers really, really bad,” Galvan alleges.
Galvan said an employee at the Nyssa site lost his job after being injured by a bull.
Santos Rodriguez, speaking though an interpreter, said he drove nearly four hours to take part in the protest to help support employees who still work for the company.
Rodriguez, who used to clean the food and water pens, was injured when he was going to take a break nearly four months ago.
“I saw the bull and I started running,” he said. “It was really mad and there was a hole.”
Galvan said Rodriguez fell in the hole while trying to get out of the path of the raging bull.
Although he was injured, Rodriguez said he didn’t seek medical attention because he alleges his supervisor told him it wouldn’t be covered.
Rodriguez, who worked part-time for the company for three years, soon found himself out of a job when he asked his supervisor, Jose Lopez, about going back to work.
“‘No, I already have someone in your place because you can’t work,’ ” Rodriguez recalled Lopez telling him.
Rodriguez said his leg still hurts when he first gets up in the morning.
Raul Esparza has worked at the Beef Northwest’s Boardman site for eight years as a feed truck driver.
Through an interpreter, Esparza said he is hopeful unionization would bring higher wages, better benefits and increased respect. He is disturbed with how supervisors talk to employees.
“They give you orders, they don’t care,” he said.
Esparza said he hasn’t received a raise this year.
“Before, every year in October they would get a raise, (but) this year we didn’t get one,” Esparza said.
He attributes this to the employees unionization efforts. He also noted employees used to get a quarterly bonus – but that hasn’t happened recently either.
“We should have had a bonus last paycheck and we didn’t get one,” he said.
Beef Northwest’s Web site said they would honor employee’s wishes regarding unionization.
“Beef Northwest has stated from the time the UFW first contacted us that this was an employee decision … but it must be based on a worker’s free exercise of the right to join the union or not to. The key is choice.”
Esparza receives less than $10 an hour, despite his longevity with the company. He said it’s hard to make ends meet.
“I have a lot of bills and pay rent,” he said.
Gabriela Salvidea, a philosophy major at Whitman College, called the situation, “a classic story of worker exploitation.” She became aware of the workers’ plight when Sepulveda made a presentation at the college.
“We’re implicated in it because we consume (meat from Beef Northwest),” she said.
Faith Applewhite, Gwen Leslie and Hannah Sherrard, all Whitman students, assisted in a protest several years ago during a unionization effort at Three Mile Farms.
“It does personally affect us,” Sherrard said.