Amidst record high feed and fuel prices, the Beef Northwest feedlot in Boardman, OR, has found itself battling an additional challenge – pressure to unionize from a California-based group called the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA).

Currently there are no unionized feedlots in the country, but that hasn’t stopped the UFWA from setting its sights on the beef industry. After finding success in unionizing workers at Threemile Canyon Farms, Oregon’s largest dairy, about a year ago, UFWA began pressuring Beef Northwest’s 320-acre feedlot, which has 80 employees and a capacity for 37,000 head – making it Oregon’s largest feedlot.

The feedlot is a family business owned by a fifth-generation Oregon ranching family who dispute that their employees want union representation. They say the biggest concern cited by workers is having to pay 2% of their paycheck to union dues.

As both sides continue to argue whether unionization should occur, the pressure is taking its toll on the beef industry. This week, Whole Foods Markets announced it will stop ordering beef fed at the Beef Northwest facility.

That decision impacts Country Natural Beef and its cooperative of 120 cattle ranchers who currently have about 14,000 head of cattle at the Beef Northwest feedlot and were a major supplier for Whole Foods. A Whole Foods spokesman says it has asked Country Natural Beef to look into using other feedlots.

Meanwhile, Country Natural Beef has remained silent and not taken sides in the dispute. But the loss of Whole Foods as a customer represents 70% of Country Natural Beef’s business and $34 million in gross sales.

The next step. Because ag workers are the only private-sector employees not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees workers the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining, the two parties involved – UFWA and Beef Northwest – must make their own agreement on how to proceed.

Representatives of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski encouraged the two sides to continue working toward a resolution in a June 4 meeting.

Union organizers are calling for a union election using what is called a card-check process in which workers sign union cards and a third party oversees the vote. At least 50% of workers need to agree to union representation.

Beef Northwest owners want the vote taken by secret ballot, in which workers vote anonymously without union involvement. It also would be overseen by a third party.

A statement by John Wilson, owner of Beef Northwest, says he doesn’t have a problem if the workers want to unionize. He just wants the workers to decide for themselves without union pressure.

In its tactics against Beef Northwest, the union filed a lawsuit on June 1 against the feedlot for failing to pay overtime to three workers in its milling operation. Last month, it also filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit, stating the company failed to hire women in certain roles.

UFWA efforts with Beef Northwest mirror those used against Threemile Canyon in 2003, when the union pressured the Tillamook County Creamery Association, the dairy’s biggest customer, to boycott, while also filing several lawsuits against the dairy.

After years of turmoil, Threemile Canyon’s owners eventually agreed to a card-election process, which resulted in a collective bargaining agreement signed last year, governing about 250 workers – the first such ag contract in the state.

UFWA was founded in California by Cesar Chavez in 1962 and now has about 500 members in Oregon and Washington. It is active in 10 states and is known for its network of supporters, stretching across college campuses and religious organizations.
-- Compiled by Kindra Gordon