The United Farm Workers, backed by local human rights activists, asked a Spokane-based agricultural lending institution on Tuesday to take its side in a labor dispute with a Franklin County dairy farm.
About nine former employees of the Ruby Ridge Dairy, of Pasco, joined by union representatives and members of the Peace and Justice Action League, marched into the offices of the Northwest Farm Credit Services, 1700 S. Assembly St., in Spokane.
Among the former employees was Margarito Sauceda Martinez, who said Ruby Ridge gave them no rest breaks, no lunch and no clean water.
“When we complained they decided to fire us,” Sauceda Martinez said.
The crowd of about 50 demonstrators presented the lender’s general counsel, Tom Tracy, with a petition signed by 30,000 supporters from across the United States, demanding that it hold the dairy owners accountable for alleged violations of state labor law.
The UFW says Northwest Farm Credit Services has loaned Ruby Ridge Dairy, and its owners Dick and Ruby Bengen, $13 million.
The Bengens were sued in August 2009 in Franklin County Superior Court by Sauceda Martinez and 13 other current and former employees who allege wage and hour violations.
Citing state law, the former employees claim they were illegally fired for attempting to organize for collective bargaining with the help of the UFW. The National Labor Relations Act doesn’t protect dairy workers.
The plaintiffs also accuse the Bengens of forcing them to work long days without breaks, that they were not provided water, and that they were not paid wages equal to the number of hours worked.
Neither the Bengens nor their attorneys could be reached for comment on Tuesday. In court documents, the dairy owners deny the allegations and say those workers who were fired were dismissed for cause and not for attempting to organize.
UFW representative Job Pozos also said that Dick Bengen threatened workers with a rifle when they asked for better working conditions.
Pozos told Tracy that the workers, who did not speak English, “would like to know whether your organization supports their rights.”
Tracy said it was up to the courts and state regulatory agencies, not Northwest Farm Credit Services, to determine whether Ruby Ridge Dairy is in violation of state laws.