These hard economic times will almost certainly impact dairy workers. Even as dairy operators worry about insurance premiums escalating, they also have to hustle to stay afloat. That means maximizing production while minimizing costs. Dairymen in Yakima County report that they've cut back employees without selling cows, which means their remaining employees will have to work even harder. The state has yet to calculate workers' compensation claims for the past year (and it doesn't separate dairies from other agricultural industries), so there's no hard data, but injury reports could increase, says Corwyn Fischer, the Washington State Farm Bureau's safety director. "People are trying to prove to their employer that they're a good worker," he says. "They'll think, ‘I need to stay on,' and they work harder and they get injured."
And dairy workers remain at a disadvantage even if their bosses care about them and pay them well. "It's not so much about working conditions as it's about power and what voice workers have in the workplace," says Erik Nicholson, regional director of the United Farm Workers union. Beyond the weighty factors of poverty and questionable citizenship, dairy workers' inability to unionize under the protection of federal law leaves them at their bosses' mercy. The only two dairies in the West that have unionized are in Oregon, where the farmworkers' union was able to rally the public to put pressure on Tillamook Cheese, which purchased milk from the dairies. But such efforts are hampered by the union's lack of resources: It has only four employees for both Oregon and Washington and none in Idaho or New Mexico.
That doesn't mean the organization has stopped trying.
On a golden June evening in Kennewick, 25 miles east of Yakima County, workers from Ruby Ridge Dairy, a 2,000-cow operation in nearby Pasco, gathered around a metal picnic table at a local park. As they piled corn tortillas with green salsa and grilled steak, the men listened to Arturo Sepulveda, a union organizer and fellow immigrant. Intense and compact, Sepulveda spoke about how he and his co-workers successfully fought to unionize the 16,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms in Oregon, just across the Columbia River. Unionization ensured workers at Threemile paid rest breaks, a pension plan, protection against being unjustly fired and "more dignity," he said. The Ruby Ridge workers passed around a pen and cards and cast votes on forming their own union.
The workers explained in Spanish that they want the union to help them get what is legally theirs but never delivered: lunch breaks, a chance to drink water or go to the bathroom. They don't expect overtime pay or Christmas vacation. As their children ran through sprinklers in the grass, the men shared stories about the conditions at Ruby Ridge, about the stink and the injuries and the long hours.
"A union would be better for the people. The work in the dairy is good, but there's no law in there. The only law is the supervisor," said Jose "Gordo" Miranda. "I'd like to be respected like a worker, right now I'm like a slave. If I get treated bad, I have to take whatever they give me because I have my family to support."
By mid-July, an overwhelming majority of Ruby Ridge's 40 employees had signed cards in favor of union representation, according to the farmworkers union. Nicholson and Sepulveda had met with the dairy's owners and suggested bringing in a neutral third-party to help negotiate unionization. The dairy wasn't interested. Dick Bengen, Ruby Ridge co-owner, says that unionization would cripple his business. If the workers went on strike and refused to milk, he explains, his cows' mammary systems would be ruined within 48 hours. And anyway, he says, his workers don't want a union, based on a vote he had at the dairy. He blames the United Farm Workers for spurring his employees to work less efficiently and less diligently, in order to create a confrontation.
The dairy has fired four people in recent weeks, including Miranda. Bengen says the dismissals have nothing to do with union activity; Nicholson calls them retaliation. In mid-August, 14 Ruby Ridge workers, including those recently fired, sued the dairy. They claim that it didn't pay full wages or provide lunch and rest breaks, and that it unfairly dismissed union supporters. But because the National Labor Relations Act doesn't cover dairies, the fired workers must depend on fairly weak case law, admits Nicholson.
As for Gustavo, when he came to Washington 11 years ago, he never thought about things like unions, or worried about his health. He thought he would become the family hero, helping his parents pay for utilities and his siblings attend school. Now, everything has changed.
He needs a doctor to readjust the metal plate under his eye, but finding someone to do the surgery has been difficult. He works all day, and he's afraid that if he takes time off for an appointment, his boss will jump at the chance to fire him.
"I'm not sure what to do. Tengo un sueno, I have a dream, to watch my children grow and study here in America, but if I lose my eyesight then I won't even be able to work," his says, his voice flat, as his 4-year-old son stands at the doorway, watching. Lately, Gustavo has been thinking about returning to Peru, but his wife, who is originally from Mexico, doesn't want to leave. They fight about it a lot. "Es muy dificil. But I think it's better to leave and be happy and poor rather than to have money and be depressed."
For additional information please see:
"Low costs drive production to large dairy farms," (2007 USDA report)
Dairies rely heavily on foreign labor (2009 National Milk Producers Federation study)
"Got workers? Dairy farms run low on labor," Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2009
"Government help not enough for most dairy farmers," Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 4, 2009