PASCO, Wash. (AP) — Margarito Martinez says he was fired from the eastern Washington dairy that employed him for more than a year because he tried to unionize the company. Nine co-workers say they also were let go for affiliations with the budding union.
The owners of Ruby Ridge Dairy, though, say only two workers were fired, one for safety violations and the other for incompetence. The others quit, they said. The dairy owners don't want the union involved in the dispute, but say they're willing to do what the workers want — as long as there's a vote.
The United Farm Workers of America, the nation's biggest farm worker union, has filed a lawsuit on the workers' behalf — the latest action from a union looking to increase its ranks among the tens of thousands of farm workers in Northwest agriculture.
"Many still are afraid that if they join, they'll be fired. But many people welcomed the union," Martinez, 56, said in Spanish. "We worked without lunch breaks and breaks. They didn't pay for all the hours worked. You worked 10 hours, you'd get paid 8, 9.5. It's not fair."
The union already represents 150 vineyard workers at the region's largest winery, plus 250 workers at a Boardman, Ore., dairy that marked the first unionized agricultural operation in Oregon. This summer, the union reached agreement with Beef Northwest to represent about 100 workers at cattle feeding yards in two states.
The union says membership has quadrupled to about 600 workers in the Northwest. Nationwide, the union says about 27,000 people have worked at least one day under a UFW contract. The federal government, however, estimates the union's membership at more than 5,000.
Nonetheless, the union's push in the Northwest has prompted the Washington State Farm Bureau to send out guidelines to farmers on what to do if workers want to unionize.
"We've had four major organizing campaigns in the last five years, so we've been very active," said Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest union director. "At Ruby Ridge, the workers came to us."
The workers contend the dairy's owners wouldn't pay for a full shift and that bathroom and lunch breaks were discouraged or not provided. They also reported verbal abuse, including an instance in which an owner told one worker he'd kill him for a cow that died under his care.
The men, all immigrants from rural Mexico, have been working in the state's agricultural industry, in orchards and dairies, for years. Ruby Ridge's 24-hour operation required graveyard shifts and workers say they were expected to toil with little rest.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.