Last week, Margarito Martinez was carrying a sign and chanting in Spanish outside of the Davenport Hotel. He was disguised as a cow.
He and seven other former employees of Ruby Ridge Dairy hoped to make an appearance at a meeting of stockholders from Northwest Credit Farm Services, which was taking place inside the hotel. The demonstrators wanted to bring attention to the lending and insurance company’s multi-million dollar mortgage with Ruby Ridge. They got as far as the lobby.
“They’ve been trying to form a union for the past year,” says Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. “During that process, 14 of the pro-union workers have been fired.”
Martinez was the first, in July 2009. Through an interpreter, he says he wasn’t given an explanation for the termination, but he thinks management didn’t appreciate his asking for better working conditions.
Moore says managers used racial epithets, carried rifles to intimidate workers, and told employees to drink from the same place where cattle retrieve their water.
Workers have filed a lawsuit against the dairy’s owners, Dick and Ruby Bengen, which is still underway. Attempts to reach the Bengens’ lawyer were unsuccessful.
The dairy’s lender isn’t convinced that the Bengens have done anything wrong.
“They asked us to get involved and pressure Ruby Ridge, but we’re not going to do that,” says Tom Tracy, the financial institution’s executive vice president and general counsel. Aside from the Davenport demonstration, PJALS, United Farm Workers and 60 workers recently delivered thousands of signatures to the lender’s Spokane office demanding workers’ rights.
“There have been allegations,” Tracy says, “but no determination that the alleged things have been done.”
And according to the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, there have not been any complaints regarding “wages, breaks, or meal periods” at Ruby Ridge Dairy. There were two safety violations that resulted from a complaint in 2010, but they were general violations not likely to result in serious injury or death. An L&I spokeswoman says that these types of violations typically don’t result in penalties.
Also siding with the dairy is the Washington Farm Bureau. About two weeks after the lawsuit was filed in 2009, the bureau put out a statement (pdf) that warned of union activity in the Columbia Basin and advised its members on how to respond.
It also pointed out policy discrepancies between itself and United Farm Workers: “Washington Farm Bureau policy recognizes the right of workers to unionize after a secret ballot election. In the case of Ruby Ridge, a majority of workers do not want a union, and the UFW will not agree to a secret ballot election.”
But Moore says the workers just want to be treated fairly.
“We are urging [Northwest Credit] to enforce their own mortgage language and stop the illegal behavior,” Moore says. “What they’ve said so far is it’s not their problem, that Ruby Ridge Dairy is a good customer and they don’t negotiate worker rights.
“But they don’t have to negotiate worker rights. They just have to enforce the law and require the dairy to abide by the law. That’s why we’re here.”