dairy workers

Dairy workers of the West grab Farm Bureau's attention

In late August, InvestigateWest brought readers a High Country News story that found that some 50,000 West Coast dairy farmers were facing increasing exploitation as one of the least protected workers in the nation. Now, as more Northwest dairy workers have pushed for unionization in recent months,  employees of an Eastern Washington farm are saying they've been fired because of it.

Associated Press reporters Shannon Dininny and Manuel Valdes write that nine co-workers have filed suit against Ruby Ridge Dairy with the aid of the nation's biggest farm worker union, United Farm Workers of America (UFW). They argue they were let go because of their affiliation with the union. The owners of the farms have disputed that charge.

The northwest's dairy workers have long lacked the basic labor laws extended by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and found in just about every other industry, including the legal right to form a union, right to overtime pay, and protection from workplace discrimination.

The farmworkers' union has seen its membership numbers skyrocket in the Northwest,  and the group's most recent organization of 250 workers at an Oregon dairy farm marked the first unionized agricultural operation in Oregon.

Immigrant dairy workers of the West at risk

Rebecca Clarren at High Country News  revealed in an recent investigative piece that West Coast immigrant dairy workers have long faced higher workplace hazards than the average U.S. worker. In an extensive review of the industry, Clarren finds that patchy data -- and employees fearful of speaking up -- have made dairy workers  "more vulnerable than ever before." Clarren writes:

They were killed in tractor accidents, suffocated by falling hay bales, crushed by charging cows and bulls and asphyxiated by gases from manure lagoons and corn silage. Others survived but lost limbs or received concussions and spent days in the hospital. However, it’s difficult to form an accurate picture of the dangers lurking in dairies because the data are incomplete. Due in part to lobbying by the powerful agricultural industry, the reporting requirements for employers are full of holes, and state and federal laws prevent safety agencies from investigating injuries and deaths in certain cases. Meanwhile, dairy workers themselves are often too afraid to speak up.

Despite the fact that skyrocketing milk production in the West has forced one-time small pastures into expansive city-size operations, which produce nearly half of America's milk supply, Clarren found that federal labor laws do not cover the West's 50,000 dairy workers, the majority of which are immigrants. In fact, they are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which forces employers to negotiate with labor unions over salaries, and protects employees who try to form unions. Clarren calls it the "Magna Carta of American labor."

While the work is inherently risky, something Labor and Industries spokesmen have argued, dairy owners feel they have taken the appropriate steps to prevent tradgedies.