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Union Deploys Vicious Methods on Natural Beef Program & Feedyard PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Friday, 20 June 2008
AFF Sentinel Vol.5#28

With typical, union-style strong-arm tactics, a labor union has attacked an entire natural beef production chain in a campaign making impossible demands.

The United Farm Workers' (UFW) tactics are threatening ugly supply and financial repercussions on food retailers, foodservice operators and cattlemen in an effort to unionize an Oregon feedlot. Exploiting a loophole in Oregon law that does not protect agricultural employers in the state, the union is using tactics - attempting a secondary boycott -- that would be considered unethical and illegal under labor relations law in most states.

The UFW has been pressing Whole Foods to cease buying the Country Natural Beef its customers have been buying because the cattle are fed at Beef Northwest's feedyards. The natural beef brand and over 120 northwest ranchers involved are caught in the middle. Under that pressure, Whole Foods had suggested to Country Natural that it would be better if it no longer fed cattle at Beef Northwest.

The ridiculous upshot is a direct attack on the entire production chain. It's not like the cattle can be moved from Beef Northwest to a unionized feedlot somewhere. We are aware of none. The union is making a demand that Country Natural cannot possibly meet.

The union has been trying to execute this plan for months, talking to retailers and foodservice outlets that use beef fed at Beef Northwest, hunting someone who would participate in their boycott attempts. All refused, until Whole Foods. Supporters of alternative food philosophies like organics, so- called "sustainable" agriculture and sourcing local food, Whole Foods was feeling the union's pressure.

So UFW had to know that by insisting Country Natural feed cattle in a unionized feedyard it would be destroying the brand. Country Natural sells roughly 60 percent of its beef to Whole Foods. Several retailers and foodservice chains buy the rest.

Moving thousands of cattle to other feedlots during the finishing phase is hazardous both to cattle's health and to beef quality. But a move is pointless, as the UFW could make the same complaints about any feedyard.

Whole Foods prides itself on providing quality natural and organic foods, at a premium price. Producing beef without the normal procedures and production aids mainstream cattlemen use is more time consuming, less efficient and expensive. Committing to that extra time and expense is difficult and risky without the assurance of a built-in buyer and premium pricing. If Whole Foods succumbs to the union's pressure, it would be the natural movement's patron saint abandoning an important, loyal disciple.

Beef Northwest has indicated it would abide by the wishes of its employees in a truly neutral election monitored by a third party. The union wants to run the election itself, presumably with a steely-eyed union "election official" watching over each voter's welfare. When the union took a delegation to Whole Foods' headquarters in Austin, TX. to apply pressure, it could persuade only one of Beef Northwest's 80 employees to go along. When the union had a "party" for the employees to try to get them to sign union authorization cards, alcohol at the very least was part of the effort to coerce employees to sign, employees later admitted. The union has refused to allow employees who, upon sober reflection, wanted to change their mind and withdraw their cards.

Other UFW tactics have included dubious lawsuits filed by employees fired for violating company rules. Beef Northwest does, for example, enforce its drug- testing policy.

The UFW is making absolutely unattainable demands on secondary players to force a feedyard to unionize. It obviously has had little experience with independent cattlemen and feedyard employees. Only R-CALF and the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) have gone to the extreme left to dig up union allies - unthinkable for mainstream production agriculture.

After time to reconsider all the issues, the welfare of the animals involved and the unethical tactics of the union, both Whole Foods and Country Natural have now shifted to a position calling for a neutral election monitored by a third party mediator. The shopping satisfaction of Whole Foods' beef customers depends on it not bowing to unreasonable, impossible union pressure.

But when a union goes into battle, getting more dues- paying members is all it cares about. The retail and foodservice companies that have slammed the door on UFW are to be congratulated and encouraged to hang tough. On top of everything else, the feedyard industry doesn't need a war with labor unions.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 03 July 2008 )
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