Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Beef Northwest workers seek student support for UFW rally

Workers at nearby Beef Northwest visited this past Thursday and relayed in Spanish stories of exploitation. They described their struggle to unionize and asked for students’ help.

The imperative for Whitman to actively support the workers is made stronger by the fact that our dining halls serve the very meat that they produce under dangerous and inequitable conditions.

“The beef comes from Central Oregon, used to be called Oregon Country Beef, but is now called Country Natural Beef,” said Susan Todhunter, manager of Prentiss dining hall, in an e-mail.

According to Arturo Sepulveda, organizer for United Farm Workers and leader of the movement at Beef Northwest, Oregon Country Beef is one of Beef Northwest’s biggest buyers.

“It’s easy to feel unconnected to a community that speaks Spanish and feel like ‘I’m never gonna work on a ranch.’ It can be so easy to think that we aren’t connected with that community, but we are,” said senior Johanna Allen, key liaison and organizer between United Farm Workers and the Whitman community.

Interest in workers’ rights among campus groups overlaps. The groups include Club Latino, Fair Trade, WCLU, La Casa and others. It was at a conference attended by Fair Trade members that Whitman built a relationship with United Farm Workers and with Sepulveda.

“In April 2005 I went to Seattle with others from the Fair Trade group, and we were there for an international coffee convention. And there we got hooked up with United Farm Workers. The Northwest coordinator at the time wanted to meet with us and he brought Arturo [Sepulveda],” said Allen.

On Thursday Sepulveda described their efforts to secure a contact. According to him, Beef Northwest refuses to negotiate with them and is effectively buying workers off.

Each week workers are enticed by the promise of a $50 bonus if they attend a meeting that pressures them not to sign a union card. Fifty dollars, for people who have inadequate salaries and benefits, is hard to turn down.

According to the workers, the company has even approached a priest in Nyssa, Ore. –– one of three Beef Northwest locations –– in an effort to use him to dissuade workers from unionizing.

Their stories were not unlike those of others who have sought assistance from United Farm Workers, the largest farm workers union in the country. They described cruelty, harassment, danger and manipulation.

They talked about Ricardo, who worked for Beef Northwest eight years ago and lost his leg in a work-related accident. He was fired and threatened against retaliating. Beef Northwest also issued a restraining order against him. He now lives in a trailer park and is unable to work because of his handicap. He lives off the generosity of the community.

One got the sense that they could rattle off hundreds of stories like this one.

“Coincidentally, I just read ‘The Jungle’ for my American Protest Lit class, so the issue of workers’ rights has been on my mind. And this was supposed to have changed because it was 100 years ago almost to the day, but it’s still the same,” said sophomore Natalie Popovich, who lives in La Casa Hispana.

“Workers are being abused, they still aren’t being paid fair wages and there’s still danger in the workplace. Everyone assumes that was a problem of the past and then it changed, but now it’s still going on and nobody is really acknowledging it.”

In the past, students have supported workers’ rights at nearby Tyson and Threemile Canyon Farms. Now students hope to embark on a similar campaign and help Beef Northwest workers secure a decent livelihood.

This Saturday students are traveling to Boardman, Ore., which is less than two hours away, for a rally at the company headquarters. Caravans will leave from Reid at 1 p.m. and return at 7 p.m.

“One thing that pisses me off is that people here, and everywhere, talk about all the injustice everywhere, but we don’t really leave campus to do anything about it. So I think this rally will be really key because we will be acting on all this jargon we have about human rights,” said Popovich. “Not to say there aren’t a lot of people who are actual activists, but I think a lot of the people here have great ideals and do support it, but don’t necessarily have an effect while we’re still here. So getting out there will probably be one of the most effective things.”

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