United Farm Workers and Beef Northwest follow-up
Earlier this week, I had a conversation with John Wilson, one of the family owners of Beef Northwest. In response to my initial entry on the efforts of their employees to unionize, the business had posted a thorough FAQ on their website; this addresses both the history of the negotiations with UFW and claims made by workers regarding working conditions and the ingredients of cattle feed from Beef NW’s point of view.
Clearly, there are competing accounts of what is at stake; in fact, it was the lack of information online about the nature of the issues that piqued my interest in the first place. I’d still like to see more detailed information about the precise grievances of the workers be available because it really does matter to me that my comfort and conveniences not be tied to someone else’s suffering.
Wilson said that Beef NW is not aware of specific grievances from workers and reported that, contrary to UFW claims, Beef NW provides break rooms, toilets, and water–including bottled water–for their workers. Additionally, he denied that the company had attempted to influence workers during the negotiations process. Hearing his perspective on the lack of dialog with the union, I asked whether they had proposed that a neutral third party become involved in the negotiations in order to facilitate clearer communication; according to Wilson, Beef NW proposed exactly such a step, which was opposed by the UFW and led to the breaking off of negotiations.
Approximately 70% of Beef NW’s employees are Latino; I doubt that many of them have their own blogs, and if I had to extrapolate from my own experience with Oregon’s Latino farmworker population, I’d guess that a significant number of them haven’t had the educational advantages I take for granted. That’s to say, their PR position, compared to that of Beef NW, is tenuous. I’m really glad to see Beef NW’s willingness to engage with the questions I’ve raised.* I’m also aware that simply being able to get a message out has a lot of power in shaping the discourse around an issue.
Overall, I have two observations to make: one is that legislation is definitely needed to provide guidelines for labor relations in the agricultural sector. Such legislation would provide a clear path for employers, especially family businesses with no experience with unions, to follow, and might clarify processes for workers deciding on whether they needed union representation.
The second is that being an informed consumer is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. If one tiny part of my diet, beef that I purchase no more than once a month, has so much information attached to it, how can I even begin to know the stories behind all the other food?
*Tangentially, I’m also really glad to see that some sloppy descriptions of the cattles’ diets on distributors’ sites have been corrected. For the record, neither Beef NW nor Oregon Country Beef made claims about their beef being entirely grass-fed; those claims were elsewhere.