Stoll Survivors

Racial slurs? Unpaid overtime? Indiscriminate firings? Welcome to Ed's farm.

The Legendary Shack-Shakers, with the Whiskey Daredevils and Alcohol Sunburn Beachland Ballroom Tuesday, December 14
Not even a broken arm could keep Cesar from work.

A hoodie-clad 24-year-old with a gold filling that frames one tooth, Cesar had been working as a cow pusher at Stoll Farms for only three days when the accident happened. As he herded cattle from the milking parlor back to the barn, a stubborn cow kicked him in the arm. Despite the pain, he finished his shift and went to the hospital the next day.

The doctor put a cast on Cesar's forearm and advised him against working for the next 45 days. It was empty counsel to the Mexican migrant. There was no chance that Ed Stoll, owner of the farm, would put him on worker's comp, lest his premium rise. So Cesar showed up every day, cast and all.

On Election Day, he clocked in as usual. A sling had replaced the cast, but the pain remained. He's the first to admit that his arm kept him from working quickly. "Even after they took the cast off, I didn't immediately regain movement, so it was still hard for me to really prove myself," he says.

But dairy-operations manager Mark Saulter had seen enough. A short man with a farmer's drawl, Saulter displayed a temper and skill with a well-placed slur that had earned him a nasty reputation among workers. So had his alleged habit of indiscriminately firing people.

He marched up to Cesar, who had just started his shift. "You're fired!" he hollered. Cesar asked what he did wrong. Saulter told him he was "a slacker," "slow," and "lazy," say workers who witnessed the encounter. They were words Saulter often used to dismiss his charges. Cesar became the seventh worker fired in two months.

Many of the farm's 45 employees had been discussing their concerns with Jeff Stewart, head of the Immigrant Workers Project, which helps migrants get their legal and cultural bearings in Ohio. They were being forced to sign contracts that allowed Stoll to dock wages if machinery was broken, they complained. They were called "stupid sons of bitches" and "fucking Mexicans." The starting salary had been slashed arbitrarily from $8.50 to $7.50 per hour. If milk quotas weren't met in an eight-hour shift, workers were forced to put in overtime without pay. And anytime a mistake occurred, someone seemed to get fired.

"You didn't know what was going to happen from one day to the next, because they were letting people go left and right," says Jorge, a pint-sized 21-year-old, whose barely-there mustache makes him look too young to drive.

As news of Cesar's firing traveled across the farm, the 33 men working that shift gathered. They decided to take their beefs to Stoll.

"What the fuck?" Saulter shouted when he saw the men coming. "Get back to work."

They approached Stoll nonetheless, asking if they could talk about the problems.

Stoll told them to go back to work, say workers; he would talk to them one by one. They refused. "If you aren't back to work in 10 seconds, you're all fired!" Stoll shouted.

Instead, they decided to strike.

Stoll is Ohio's largest dairy farm and one of the biggest in the country. It operates around the clock. Each of its 2,045 cows produces around 70 pounds of milk a day. When it announced plans to expand to nearly 5,000 cows, Wayne County responded with a 50 percent tax deduction over the next 10 years.

The family-run business sits near Marshallville, 800 people strong and 15 miles southwest of Akron. Its main intersection lacks a stoplight, and the sweet stench of cow manure always lingers in the air.

Walter Stoll, Ed's father, incorporated the farm in 1965. He was a private man and meant to keep the family business a "secret from outsiders," according to a letter written by his daughter Patricia. After Walter died in 1991, however, the farm became the best gossip around town.

Though Walter hoped his estate would be divided among his children, his death ignited all-out warfare. His seven kids spent the next decade embroiled in lawsuits, fisticuffs, and numerous restraining orders, according to court files.

When the family met, they would often need a Wayne County deputy present to keep the peace, says Maureen Eveland of the Wayne County Clerk of Courts office. Ed's brother, Roger Stoll, was accused of punching out employee Richard Patterson for "not doing his job," according to a 1992 police report. The same year, Roger was assaulted by his brother-in-law, Freeman Swank. Roger sued Swank for more than $1 million. The case was eventually dismissed.

While brother Tom presided over the farm, his siblings constantly undermined his authority. Ed was caught siphoning off funds that accountants estimated to be as much as $420,000. A sloppy, handwritten contract on notebook paper, dated March 21, 1991, bears evidence of Ed's penance: "We, as the Board of Stoll Farm's Inc. have accepted the settlement of $50,000 dollar's from Ed Stoll for embezlement," it says, misspellings and all. "There will be no more fines accesed to Ed Stoll on this matter EVER!" The document is signed by Ed.

However, after his siblings removed Tom as president, Tom and sister Brenda sued Ed for another $1 million in reparations. Two years later, the case was dismissed, and Tom sold his shares to Ed, according to a court deposition.

One by one, the seven Stolls began to surrender, walking away from the farm their father built. In the end, only one was left: Ed.

Why anyone would migrate to this place is beyond a gringo's comprehension. But to one who's traveled thousands of miles in search of work, it seemed an ideal stop. Long hours, strenuous labor, and $7.50 an hour may not seduce Americans, but it appeared to present the opportunity of a lifetime to someone like Cesar, who was working for peanuts as a bathroom attendant in Mexico City.

Of course, the advertising is always prettier than reality.

"You meet people who've come to the United States, and they fill your head with ideas," says Jorge, who came from Vera Cruz, Mexico. "But you get here, and it's not at all the way you imagined it. When you're living on the other side, you think it's paradise, but really it's not. It's difficult."

Jorge had just finished high school when he came to the United States. His uncle, who worked at Stoll, got him a job as a milker. Most of the farm's employees have a brother, an uncle, or a father working alongside them. Very few speak English. After all, they aren't here for a cultural exchange. They're here to work.

It's hard to tell who's legal and who is not. Consider it the quid pro quo of American immigration policy. People south of the border need work, and businessmen like Stoll are happy to exploit their willingness to work for lower wages. Despite the incessant drumbeat of strong words from Washington, the government looks the other way. Everyone's happy. Sort of.

(To protect livelihoods, Scene is printing only the first names of Stoll employees.)

Martin speaks as much with his hands as with his mouth. The 42-year-old sends money back to his wife and children in Mexico City. He's been in the U.S. for three years and has gone home to visit only once. "I work to buy land, to build a house, and to take care of my family. That's it," he says.

And Stoll seemed like a fairly good gig until earlier this year, when Saulter was hired. That's when the farm began forcing new employees to sign contracts they didn't understand. Later, they realized they had agreed to allow Stoll to dock their wages if machinery was accidentally broken.

It only got worse. If milk quotas weren't met, says Jorge, they'd have to work overtime for no pay. And if a mistake was made, someone was fired at random.

Then there was the case of Osbaldo, Enrique, and Rodolfo, who all lived in an old house with a broken furnace owned by Stoll. Tired of the living conditions, they moved out, but Stoll continued to deduct rent from their checks, including $45 each for a landscaping service, says Stewart. Stoll's lawyer, Mark Skakun, says it was to cover unpaid utility bills.

But it was Saulter's verbal abuse that pushed employees to act. He routinely called them "fucking Mexican" and "stupid son of a bitch," say strikers. Once, Saulter apologized, explaining that his "lack of schooling" was responsible for his diatribes. It did little to soothe feelings.

"We all feel humiliated," says Diego, a soft-spoken, bespectacled 24-year-old.

"He didn't treat us like human beings," adds Jorge. "He treated us like slaves."

No one wanted to strike. They believed Stoll would listen to their complaints.

Attorney Mark Heller has spent 18 years in immigration law. He's never seen anything like this. "It has to get pretty intolerable for people to walk out like they did," he says. "Typically, migrant workers just find another job and move on. That's why this is fairly dramatic."

Though employees believe that things went downhill when Saulter arrived, Ralph Staal knows better.

He was hired as the dairy-operations manager when the farm's new facility was built in 2001. "In a way, it has nothing to do with the new manager," says Staal, who was fired in June and now lives in Wisconsin. "It starts at the top. The new manager wouldn't be the way he is if it wasn't for the pressure put on him."

Under Staal, Stoll workers won a 2002 milking competition and a title that proclaimed them the fastest in Ohio. He says employees always gave him their best.

Employees also speak highly of Staal. Martin's brother Noe calls him "the most professional man I've ever worked with."

Though Staal's first two years went smoothly, there was always tension between Stoll and his son, Todd, who left the farm a few months ago. Father and son disagreed over Stoll's leadership techniques. "Ed believes in managing people out of fear," Staal says.

(Stoll and Saulter both declined comment for this story.)

The situation plummeted rapidly in March, when Todd left for vacation. It was the first time Staal had to answer directly to Stoll, who started demanding that random workers be fired if milking wasn't finished on time. Instead, Staal called in extra men to ensure that wouldn't happen.

But Stoll kept wanting the work done faster and faster. It would often mean that cows were missed, leaving their udders to leak Stoll's gold -- which meant that someone would have to be fired.

At the same time, Stoll began talking about docking employees for broken machinery. Staal says that his job became less about personnel management and more about protecting workers from the owner's wrath.

When Todd returned from vacation, tensions with his father increased. Finally, he gave up and left the farm. (Todd could not be reached for comment.)

Soon, Saulter was hired as Staal's assistant. Also brought on was Tito Castro, a Puerto Rican hired under the assumption that Puerto Ricans and Mexicans generally dislike each other, says Staal. Hence, workers would receive no special treatment.

(Castro was fired 10 days after the strike began. He declined an interview with Scene, fearing that he wouldn't receive his final paycheck.)

The strife is merely history repeating itself, says Staal. He points to the family's legacy of feuding, fighting, and litigation. "He survived the first war, so who knows?" Staal says of Ed. "He might be able to survive this one."

In an area without sidewalks or streetlights, their way lit by only one flashlight, six people walk along Coal Bank Road, ready to picket. Their numbers are limited, thanks to a restraining order granted to Stoll. In court papers, he argued that "mass picketing" was affecting farm operations and that strikers "verbally abused, intimidated, and harassed" him and his employees. The pickets are now limited to two at each entrance. There is no safety in numbers.

The sun has already set. A thick veil of darkness obscures everything except the glowing red tip of Jorge's cigarette.

Stoll pulls his red truck around to the entrance, where Jeff Stewart, head of the Immigrant Workers Project, is leaning on his cane. Stoll flashes his brights at a reporter. "Watch out, he'll probably take a picture of you," Stewart warns. "That's what he does. He gets out of his car, gets right up in your face, and snaps a picture of all the new people."

A cross between Francis Ford Coppola and Allen Ginsberg, with a bushy bohemian beard and black Chuck Taylors, Stewart is an intense man. He's trying to make sure the men at the other entrances are safe, as Saulter and Stoll intimidatingly circle them in pickup trucks, speeding up as they approach.

The farm's isolation doesn't supply the strikers with many supportive spectators. Maybe three cars have driven by. The only sound is the lowing of cows being herded into barns.

The reporter asks Stewart how long they plan to strike. "As long as it takes," he sighs.

When the strikers finally get ready to leave, Stewart shouts to the farm in Spanish: "Good night, Constantino and Felipe! Maybe tomorrow morning you'll think about coming out here and standing with us." His words are meant for two workers who decided to scab a few days after the strike began.

But as Stewart and the reporter walk to their cars, Saulter begins to play a game of chicken with them. They stand and wait for him to turn into the driveway. When they try to walk, he releases his brakes. When they wait for him to pull past, he doesn't budge. "Don't want to hit nobody," he says sarcastically as he finally drives away.

When Stoll petitioned for the restraining order, Saulter claimed that he stays "as far away from the picketers as possible," according to his affidavit.

On the 16th day of the strike, eight men take their places on the picket line. Martin holds a tattered sign recycled from a previous demonstration. The name of the rubber-workers union has been covered up with "Stoll Unfair" raggedly painted over layers of duct tape.

As a semi approaches, Martin retreats from the picket line. The truck swerves in his direction. Martin nudges the reporter next to him into a ditch. As the truck passes, its fat tires dangerously skim the edge of Martin's sign. He shakes his head in disbelief as the truck returns to its lane.

Later that day, Martin arrives at strike headquarters, otherwise known as the powder-blue prefab home of Nicki Leon and her grandmother, Nadine Cunningham. The modest house sits next to the dairy farm, on the property of Stoll's cousin, Chester. After discovering the picket line just up the street, Chester gave strikers permission to park on his property, and Leon offered them a place to rest.

Stoll wasn't happy that his cousin was giving aid to the enemy. One day, when Chester went to weigh his feed at Stoll's, Ed told him that he wasn't welcome until he got "those idiots" off his property, says Chester.

Chester's aware of Ed's litigious ways. When Walter Stoll died, Ed and his siblings sued their cousins over land jointly owned by their fathers, according to court records. Chester's been weary of Ed's animus ever since.

"He goes to the limit," says Chester. "If he's picking on me, I'm in trouble. I don't need to stir it up . . . But would I help these guys again? Sure! It's the right thing to do."

Since the strike began, the migrants have been hanging out at Leon's. A 32-year-old horse trainer, she smokes USA Golds and tells her life story with the drama of a Loretta Lynn song. Though Leon can't speak Spanish, she manages a mangled Spanglish that the men seem to understand perfectly. "Diego! You want I llamo Wal-Mart por tù glasses?" she asks, meaning that she wants to call Wal-Mart to make sure Diego's new glasses are ready before he leaves to work on a Kentucky horse farm the following week. "They're like family," she says.

The kitchen is littered with Mexican staples -- giant cans of jalapeños, homemade queso fresco, corn tortillas, beans, rice, recycled Reiter ice-cream tubs filled with salsa, and a bounty of generic pop. As the guys fix themselves lunch, they chat about job prospects -- factory work in Orrville, another dairy farm in Smithville, a landscaping company in Copley.

Five have already gone back to Mexico. Two are scabbing at Stoll. Two more will soon leave for Kentucky.

In the living room, 76-year-old Nadine Cunningham sits in her armchair, staring blankly at "the Spanish channel." She perks up as Stewart enters the house and calls everyone into the living room. He begins to read letters from people who've sent donations.

One woman enclosed $5 with a little note. "I know it's not much," Stewart translates to Spanish. "But I'm praying for you in your struggle. P.S. I used to be married to a Mexican."

Beatrice Maya, a petite Argentine who works for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, says such strikes are seldom successful without the help of outsiders. "Farm workers need a lot of support from the community, because of their position of powerlessness."

Most of the agricultural labor force consists of illegals. The situation leaves them vulnerable and easy to exploit. There are only three farm-workers unions in the country, and few migrants have the savings to endure a strike. "That's why the strike is often a last resort," says Maya.

The Catholic Commission of Wayne County and St. Mary's Church in Wooster have helped get the men food. The Immigrant Workers Project has tried to line up part-time work. Others have dropped off sandwiches and cookies.

Debbie Grayson, owner of Heavenly Hash, Marshallville's sole diner, donated hamburger and eggs. Grayson heard complaints about Saulter long before the strike. She also says that Stoll is notoriously stubborn. "I know there are two sides to every story, but I just didn't want those guys going hungry," Grayson says.

Yet gringo presence on the picket line has been sparse, save for a few priests and an Akronite who came down on his day off. Chester says that some of his neighbors were upset when he offered workers a place to park. "I'm a bad guy in the neighborhood right now, because I gave some human support to the Mexican workers," he says.

Mark Heller, a lawyer who works with immigrants, believes that one of the major obstacles facing this strike is that the farm is in the middle of nowhere. "There's a much higher percentage of abuse than in the typical workplace, because most agricultural labor tends to be in isolated locations, so there's not much observation by the general public."

By national standards, the explosion of migrant workers came late to Ohio. It began in the mid-'90s, says Heller, when the unemployment rate fell and farms had trouble filling jobs. At the same time, the jobless rate in Mexico skyrocketed. There are now about 1,800 Mexican workers in Wayne County alone.

Though many are here illegally, they're nonetheless covered by U.S. labor law. Generally speaking, however, the law does little for farm workers, thanks to 1930s politics. When Franklin Roosevelt pushed through the National Labor Relations Act, he had to exclude agricultural workers from its protections in order to gather votes from southern Democrats, who weren't excited about giving black sharecroppers clout.

Still, there are basic rights. Farm workers are granted a minimum wage, which makes it illegal for Stoll to dock their wages if it brings their earnings below $5.15 an hour, says Heller. And it's likely that such repeated slurs as "fucking Mexican" could bring a handsome judgment in a civil-rights suit.

Stoll's lawyer denies any wrongdoing.

Just after the 5:30 a.m. picket, Bev Simmons, a weathered cowgirl with cropped blonde hair, sits in Leon's armchair before heading off to her new janitor's job. Simmons worked at Stoll for three and a half years. She thought she might retire there. Thanks to Saulter, there was a change in plans.

One day, while Simmons was herding cows back into the barn, she and a worker named Juan accidentally mixed up milking groups. Saulter attempted to fire Juan for their mistake. Simmons said she'd leave in Juan's place. She was fed up anyway.

Before that, Saulter ordered her to tell the men to put iodine on the cow's udders immediately, or one man would be fired. "I wasn't a supervisor. That wasn't my job, and there he was, making me yell at my friends," Simmons says.

Juan and Simmons were both part of the Stoll team that won the state milking competition. It is one of Simmons' proudest moments.

As she says her goodbyes and heads out the door of Leon's home, Martin and Diego grab warm tortillas and fill them with scrambled eggs, peppers, ham, and cheese. Martin says he knows that most people think of Mexicans as ignorant. "But we know a lot."

He's proud of his working heritage and is accustomed to 12-hour days. When Leon says it isn't good to work more than eight hours, Martin pounces. "See, it's the gringos that are lazy."

He believes his work is important to the success of the patrón -- i.e., the owner. If the patrón treats employees with dignity and respect, they will work hard for him. But if he humiliates them, they will organize and fight, and his money will be lost.

Yes, Martin appears to understand America very well.

Just down the road, a group of Guatemalan workers now share the old house where Osbaldo, Enrique, and Rodolfo used to live. They are among the scabs hired since the strike began. Mark Skakun, Stoll's lawyer, claims that all positions have been filled.

Saulter says that everyone has been replaced, but refuses to discuss allegations of abuse. "A lot of these guys just didn't like their job descriptions," he says. "We feel like we were legally justified in everything we did."

Skakun dismisses workers' stories as "absolutely untrue." He asserts that they were docked only for machinery that was "maliciously" broken.

Workers find the assumption ludicrous. "You're not only hurting the machine," says Jorge, "you're hurting yourself."

Skakun also says that Saulter "can't wait for his name to appear in print to sue somebody . . . He finds this extremely offensive," says Skakun.

In the meantime, under the title of United Diary Workers of Ohio, Local 1, workers have sent Stoll a list of demands. They want to be paid for every hour worked, an end to payroll deductions for accidents, recognition of their union, and a return to work with their seniority intact.

Stoll hasn't responded. Skakun doesn't know whether he ever will.

Stewart's group also filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor, but it may take more than six months for them to be addressed.

On Thanksgiving Day, workers feast on Leon's 20-pound turkey. Then they bundle up, grab their rain-stained picket signs, and head down Coal Bank Road.

In their red pickup, Stoll and his wife, Bonnie, swerve to within a foot of Cesar as the group approaches. Cesar jumps into the ditch.

When the men tell Leon what happened, she furiously calls the police. But in a subsequent affidavit, Stoll denies even being there. He says he's never intimidated picketers with his truck. "This is total bullshit. I can't believe this is still going on," Leon says.

It's been over a month since the strike began, and Stoll has yet to negotiate. As the passing time takes its toll, Jorge admits that getting their jobs back is no longer the issue. "Maybe we won't go back to work for Stoll Farms, but we're sure that Ed Stoll will think twice about mistreating the next Mexican he hires," he says. "He can't mistreat them, because he's not dealing with one worker, but 30 workers."

As he keeps warm on one of Leon's mismatched couches, the year's first snow begins to accumulate outside. There, amid the giant pile of picket signs, a poster bearing the handwritten words "Respecto y Dignidad" begins to disappear under the falling snowflakes.

Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.