By MANUEL VALDES and SHANNON DININNY

Associated Press

PASCO, Wash. (AP) -- Margarito Martinez says he was fired from the Eastern Washington dairy that employed him for more than a year because he tried to unionize the company. Nine co-workers say the same thing: They were let go for their affiliations to the budding union.

The owners of Ruby Ridge Dairy, though, say only two workers were fired, one for safety violations and the other for incompetence. The others quit, they said. The dairy owners don't want the union involved in the dispute, but say they're willing to do whatever the workers want as long as there's a vote.

This summer, the United Farm Workers of America, the nation's biggest farm worker union, filed suit on the workers' behalf -- the latest action from a union looking to increase its ranks among the tens of thousands of farm workers in Northwest agriculture.

"Many still are afraid that if they join, they'll be fired. But many people welcomed the union," Martinez, 56, said in Spanish. "We worked without lunch breaks and breaks. They didn't pay for all the hours worked. You worked 10 hours, you'd get paid 8, 9.5. It's not fair."

The union already represents 150 vineyard workers at the region's largest winery, plus 250 workers at a Boardman, Ore. dairy that marked the first unionized agricultural operation in Oregon. This summer, the union reached agreement with Beef Northwest to represent about 100 workers at cattle feeding yards in two states.

The union says membership has quadrupled to about 600 workers in the Northwest. Nationwide, the union says about 27,000 people have worked at least one day under a UFW contract. The federal government, however, estimates the union's membership at more than 5,000.

Nonetheless, the union's push in the Northwest has prompted the Washington State Farm Bureau to send out guidelines to farmers on what to do in case their workers want to unionize.

"We've had four major organizing campaigns in the last five years, so we've been very active," said Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest union director. "At Ruby Ridge, the workers came to us."

The workers contend the dairy's owners wouldn't pay for a full shift, often cutting an hour, two or more from a paycheck. Bathroom and lunch breaks were discouraged or not provided.

They also reported verbal abuse, including an instance in which the owner told one worker he'd kill him for a cow that died under his care.

The men, all immigrants from rural Mexico, have been working in the state's agricultural industry, in orchards and dairies, for years. At Ruby Ridge, the 24-hour operation required graveyard shifts and workers say they were expected to toil with little rest.

"They never gave us benefits," said Cirilo Ramirez, who is still employed at the dairy. "If we made a mistake they would not talk to us like human beings, they would talk to us like animals, yelling, insulting. I don't think that should be allowed."

Dick Bengen, 62, has been a dairyman since 1968. In 1999, he and wife Ruby bought more than 2,200 acres of dusty land 15 miles northeast of Pasco. They had two goals: to free themselves from the residential sprawl settling into western Washington's agricultural land and to operate a large dairy in small-dairy ways, where cows aren't just numbers.

Twelve of their 14 employees moved with them from Whatcom County. Most remain.

"I've been happy here for a long time. If I'm not happy, I'd quit," said Leopoldo Perez, 40, of Pasco, who started with the Bengens when they first bought the property 10 years ago.

Dick Bengen says the couple couldn't have gotten where they are without their employees.

"They're the backbone," he said.

They say they learned some workers were disgruntled shortly before a union organizer arrived at the farm, saying the union now represents their 40-plus workers.

Both say they were surprised and disappointed. They deny the workers' accusations. Work breaks are common, they said. Employees are free to take lunches but most choose not to, they said, because they are unpaid.

Ruby Bengen deals most with the employees, walking from milking barns to fields answering questions and giving instructions as needed.

"We were in shock," Ruby Bengen said, fighting emotions. "It cut me to the core."

Neither speaks Spanish, and Ruby Bengen conceded miscommunication occurs. But they said bilingual workers translate as needed and at monthly meetings. They prefer not to hire a manager, choosing instead to work directly with employees themselves.

"We went to the union with an offer for a secret-ballot election. If a majority of employees wanted to unionize, we would go into negotiations. And if they didn't want a union, the UFW would go away," Dick Bengen said. "They rejected that offer."

The farm workers union says they will not have a secret ballot, adding they have already gathered the workers' signatures on union cards. They want a third party to check the validity of the signatures with Ruby Ridge's records.

That argument dovetails with a national effort by organized labor for a bill in Congress that would give workers the right to form unions by signing cards instead of holding a secret ballot election.

Most of the Ruby Ridge workers who have filed suit say they would willing to go back to the dairy once the union dispute is resolved. Most are family men, with young children to tend to, and not all have found other jobs since their departure from the dairy.

"We're struggling," said Jose Miranda, another worker who alleges he was fired. "But I think this bad will be for a good later on."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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