Published September 21, 2018 in The Stranger
By Lester Black
A broad coalition of labor groups, farm workers’ rights groups, and dairy workers started a fast Thursday at Darigold’s offices in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, demanding that the state’s largest dairy company improve working conditions.
“Unfortunately, Darigold has yet to hear our calls so as of today we have ceased eating,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers. “We know nothing more to do to call attention to the dire situation than to fast. This is a fast for reconciliation, it’s time for the state’s dairy farmers to partner with dairy workers, not see them as adversaries or tools that they can throw out when they are done with.”
The workers claim the company is allowing sexual harassment, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and employee retaliation at its member dairies.
Darigold is a farming cooperative that is owned by a collection of individual farmers, although it functions largely like a corporate agricultural business. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s big brother Stan Ryan is its CEO. The nearly 500-member farms produced over 9 billion pounds of milk in 2016 worth $2.107 billion, according to their website. The company is in the midst of an international expansion and hopes to soon be selling half of its milk internationally, according to a Seattle Times profile last month.
The groups claim that Darigold has tolerated unsafe working conditions and illegal wage practices at their member dairies. Twelve farmworkers filed a lawsuit against the Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, which is a member of Darigold’s cooperative, accusing the dairy of wage theft and of depriving rest breaks. The workers said they were subsequently fired. A Franklin County judge ruled in September that Ruby Ridge was violating wage laws for at least two of the employees.
Two women have also claimed that they were sexually harassed at Darigold’s member dairies. One of the women, Maria Gonzalez, said she was recently awarded a $95,000 settlement in the case. Another woman, Yolanda Carrion, said she was fired after telling her boss she was being sexually harassed at work.
“We are mothers and fathers of families and the dairies do not care if they fire us,” Carrion said, according to an interpreter’s translation at the press conference. “There are many of us. The dairies do not like for us to speak up. We are going to keep fighting because we do not like injustice—that is why we are all here today.”
Carrion said she filed her own sexual harassment lawsuit against Darigold. Domingo Garcia, the president of the national wide organization League of United Latin American Citizens, said he traveled from El Paso, Texas to support the Darigold workers.
“Me too is not just about Hollywood actresses, it’s about dairy women that are working every day to put milk on the table for the babies of Americans,” Garcia said.
Jeff Johnson, the president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said the dairies had become “nothing more than agricultural sweatshops.”
“We represent over 450,000 workers in the state of Washington and we can proudly say we are standing in unity with the farm workers today,” Johnson said to the small crowd assembled outside the Georgetown Office Park. “In the past three years injury rates have soared in the dairy industry in this state, injury rates are a 121 percent higher than any other Washington industry combined. The rate of significant injuries where workers have to lose work is 41 percent higher than other sectors of agriculture.”
A worker at one of Darigold’s farms died in 2015 after he drowned in a manure lagoon outside of Yakima. A year later, two more men died by drowning in manure ponds in Idaho after flooding and a freeze had created unsafe conditions. The Idaho incidents were not at Darigold dairies, but all three accidents happened at facilities that had no guard rails around the deep ponds. Darigold's Yakima farm agreed to build the guardrails in exchange for paying a lower fine after the man’s death, according to the Yakima Herald.
A bill was proposed in the Washington legislature in 2016 that would increase safety requirements on Washington’s dairies and increase penalties for infractions, but the bill failed after Darigold's lobbyists voiced their opposition.
Stan Ryan—who, again, is Paul Ryan’s older brother— told the Seattle Times that they are quick to “adopt best practices when they hear of them, well before anybody says they need to.” (An interesting statement considering Darigold is blocking new regulations.) Paul Ryan’s brother later defended his company by pointing out that recent audits had shown “no child labor, slave labor, or minimum wage violations.”
Congratulations on meeting the exceedingly low bar of not engaging in child and slave labor, Paul Ryan's brother.
Darigold’s international expansion has included a new $100-million production facility in the Yakima Valley to service the 20 countries they are selling dairy products in. Nicholson, of the UFW, said this current investment push is built off exploiting and depriving the company's agricultural workers.
“The carnage is daily and people need change, not a year from now or two years from now,” Nicholson said.
After the press conference, some of the workers went back to marching along the street in front of the Darigold’s office. A group of organizers and employees went over to the Starbuck’s world headquarters and asked them to demand Darigold, one of their suppliers, improve their working conditions. I saw State Rep. Strom Peterson, who represents the Seattle suburbs of Edmonds and Mukilteo. He said he was “alarmed but not surprised” to hear the workers' stories.
“I was in the House when we worked on legislation after that tragic death, so I think that’s one of the problems—we are working at it but we are just not getting that cooperation from the industry,” Peterson said.
He said the industry isn’t improving its standards fast enough.
“It’s clearly not fast enough when you have workers getting fired for exposing pretty egregious violations to worker safety, sexual harassment, wage theft,” Peterson said.