Unionization battle escalated to flurry of lawsuits
By DAN WHEAT
ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- In July 2009, two representatives of United Farm Workers walked into the office of Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, Wash., and announced they had done a card check and were now representing the dairy's workforce.
"They told us we could not talk to our employees, that they knew violations were going on, that we must supply employees with potable water -- we were -- that they knew animal abuse had occurred and that we could not fire anyone for any reason," said Dick Bengen, Ruby Ridge owner.
"They said their vice president would have us sign a memorandum of agreement the next day," Bengen said. "The whole experience was quite unnerving."
That night Bengen and his wife, Ruby, got on the Internet and found card checks are not the standard for unionization in Washington.
The next day UFW Vice President Erik Nicholson offered to get them an attorney when they wanted one before signing any agreement, Bengen said.
"We declined the offer and at that point he became very angry and literally declared war on us in front of several witnesses," Bengen said.
The Bengens sought help from the Washington Farm Bureau and had the Farm Employers Labor Service Group, a Sacramento labor service, explain the pros and cons of unionization to their employees.
The Bengens said they offered to hire the American Arbitration Association to interview each employee anonymously. If a majority wanted union representation, the Bengens would begin negotiations with the UFW. But if a majority did not want a union, the UFW would leave.
Nicholson refused that offer, and an offer for a secret ballot, Bengen said.
"At this point we were beginning to understand what Mr. Nicholson meant when he said, 'This is war,'" Bengen said.
Studying other UFW unionization efforts, the Bengens saw patterns of discrediting adversaries, media blitzes, pressuring suppliers, processors and lenders and driving wedges between employers and employees.
So the Bengens told their story to the media and their suppliers, processor, bank and friends.
On Aug. 12, 2009, several employees -- with the help of UFW -- sued Ruby Ridge. They alleged unlawful dismissal and a violation of wage laws. Bengen said they had been fired for misfeeding cows, stealing feed and medicine, ignoring safety procedures and falsifying records.
The Bengens hired an attorney. Next came work slowdowns, sabotaged equipment that resulted in poor quality milk and injury to animals, insubordination and stabbings of cows, Bengen said.
The Bengens fired more employees, who then joined the lawsuit. Others quit and claimed they were fired, Bengen said. He said he heard employees were being offered large sums of money to join the union.
"Several employees were threatened for not agreeing to join the UFW," Bengen said. "Ruby's life was threatened. One employee was chased, forced off the road, recovered control of his vehicle and outran his pursuers."
The Bengens decided they could not afford to fire more employees, but animals kept getting sick and injured and milk production kept declining.
"We were told the UFW tutored some of our cow feeders how to mess with rations to cause our cows to get sick," Bengen said.
They hired new feeders and early in 2011 sued the UFW, Nicholson and UFW representative Arturo Sepulveda for damages. The UFW then filed a so-called "anti-SLAPP" suit against the dairy, seeking protection against the dairy's suit. SLAPP is an acronym for Washington's Act Limiting Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation law, which is aimed at protecting individuals' free expression by rejecting frivolous lawsuits filed against them.
"We were required to produce clear and convincing evidence without depositions or the usual evidence-gathering procedures," Bengen said. "How this SLAPP procedure got through the Legislature is beyond me. It deprives me of due process."
A judge ruled the Bengens had clear and convincing evidence in several instances. The UFW appealed and an appellate court upheld the lower court.
"We are now waiting to see if the UFW appeals that decision to the full court," Bengen told a Washington Farm Labor Association conference at Central Washington University.
"For the UFW it appears the end justifies the means," Bengen told his audience.
Others blindly follow the UFW with little or no direct knowledge of a situation, he said.
"This country has big problems, in part, because too many of us are willing to say that the struggle between right and wrong is not worth the trouble or expense," Bengen said. "That is not in my DNA and should not be in yours."