Dairy workers go on strike

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SALEM, Ohio – Disgruntled workers at one of the largest dairy farms in Ohio went on strike earlier this month, demanding respect from their employer.

These 35 employees at Stoll Farms in Wayne County say they weren’t paid for hours worked, they were held responsible for the cows’ milk production, and management made racially motivated insults.

Stoll Farms’ attorney, Mark Skakun, called the claims “a shot in the dark.”

Union is formed

Workers went on strike Nov. 2 after a fellow employee, whose arm was broken, was fired for not being able to keep up, said Jeff Stewart, director of Immigrant Worker Project of Canton.

They thought this was unfair and asked to speak with the farm’s owner, Ed Stoll. Stewart said the employees told him they were ordered to go back to work milking the 2,800 cows or be fired.

The employees walked out, began picketing near the farm’s entrance and formed a union, United Dairy Workers of Ohio, Local 1, he said.

A new manager

Firing the injured worker was the final straw in what has been a difficult several months, Stewart said.

Some of the employees had been at Stoll Farms in Marshallville for five years, but working conditions didn’t begin to go downhill until six months ago when a new manager was hired, he said.

Now, workers say they are being verbally abused because they are Mexican and starting wages dropped from $8.50 to $7.50, Stewart said. Nearly all the workers on strike are Mexican immigrants.

In addition, he said workers are told to work additional hours without pay if milk production decreases on their shifts.

“These guys are hard workers,” Stewart said. “All they want is to have some respect in the workplace.”

Pay, benefits

Some workers pay for on-farm housing, and the only time anything is deducted from their paychecks is for late bills, said Skakun, the Stoll’s attorney.

He said he doesn’t understand the workers’ complaints: The newer employees are making $8.50-$9 an hour and the others take home $10-$11 an hour, he said.

This pay scale made it easy for the Stolls to immediately hire new labor to take the place of the striking workers, Skakun said.

“A lot of people are more than willing to work for $10 an hour plus benefits, retirement and hospitalization,” he said, adding that workers receive Christmas gifts, double-time wages on holidays, a turkey for Thanksgiving, employee picnics in the summer, and half a cow each year.

“You couldn’t believe how fast people came in and took over those jobs,” Skakun said, adding the new workers are not immigrant labor.

Although other workers have stepped in, all is not running smoothly at the farm.

Someone let off a bottle rocket from the side of the road at about 12:30 a.m. Nov. 13 and aimed it toward one of the dairy barns, said Capt. Doug Hunter with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department.

The animals were startled and ran, but no one was injured, he said.

The suspect is a prior worker and the matter is still under investigation, Hunter said.

The following night, someone also let out 70 animals, Skakun added, although they were brought back to the farm.

Negotiations?

Workers and their new union are hoping to negotiate with the farm and get their jobs back.

They want paid for every hour worked, no deductions for common workplaces accidents, scheduled pay increases, a grievance procedure and acknowledgment of their union.

“The workers will work with you to improve conditions, increase production and maintain safe and sanitary conditions,” Stewart wrote in a letter to Stoll Farms. “They want to work with you while being treated with dignity and respect.”

Skakun responded by saying, “Ed Stoll and Stoll Farms always treat people with respect because they expect to be treated with respect, too, and until this incident happened, they’ve always been held in the highest esteem. This is a shot in the dark.”

As of press time Nov. 15, the workers were still striking. Stewart said no strike deadlines have been set.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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