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Obama Backs UFW's Union Drive at Whole Food Supplier, Beef NorthWest

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has sent a letter to Beef Northwest Feeders urging managing partner John Wilson to re-open labor contract negotiations with United Farm Workers.

In the letter dated Aug. 4, Obama wrote he was concerned about "the breakdown in communication between Beef Northwest Feeders and United Farm Workers."

The two parties have failed to agree on a method to determine if workers at Beef Northwest want union representation.

Obama went on to encourage Wilson "to recognize the card check election of June 13 and to negotiate with your employees' chosen bargaining agent, the United Farm Workers."

UFW claims that in a June card-check election, a neutral third party verified more than 50 percent of the feedlot's workers want UFW representation.

"If this election is good enough for who we expect to be the next president of the United States, it should be good enough for Beef Northwest," said Steve Witte, UFW Pacific Northwest director of strategic campaigns.

Wilson said the feedlot doesn't recognize the election, in part because it wasn't involved in the election or even aware it was occurring.

"We weren't notified. We were not part of the process. We didn't see any of the cards, and we didn't see any of the verification," he said.

Wilson added: "We would recognize the card count that the union claims to have as long as our employees are allowed a withdrawal process if they so desire."

Wilson said the feedlot also would accept other types of election.

"We're wide open to any other type of election - including a secret-ballot election - that is monitored by a neutral third party," he said.

The union has rejected calls for a secret-ballot election.

Wilson said he responded to Obama's letter and has invited the Illinois senator to have lunch with him and several employees at the Spud Cellar in Boardman and to tour the company's Boardman feedlot.

"I haven't heard back from him," Wilson said.

On another front, UFW has highlighted its Beef Northwest union organizing campaign as its campaign of the week on its website and is asking consumers to write letters to Whole Foods objecting to the grocery chain stocking beef finished at the feedlot.

Wilson said nothing has changed in his discussions with Whole Foods since the upscale grocer rejected a request from UFW to pressure Country Natural Beef to change feedlots. Country Natural Beef finishes its steers at Beef Northwest.

"Both Beef Northwest and County Natural Beef have had numerous conversations with Whole Foods and the relationship is excellent," Wilson said.

Wilson added that Beef Northwest continues to have discussions with UFW.