WHILE THE SEATTLE City Council is busy considering a measure that would require private contractors who do business with the city to extend benefits to domestic partners, a local contractor is looking to do the exact opposite. Buffalo Industries, Inc. is cutting the benefits it provides all its employees, and their spouses and dependents.

The union representing the company's employees vows to fight back, hoping to persuade the city to discontinue the company's $100,000 contract as punishment.

For more than 65 years, this rag-manufacturing company has had a philosophy revolving around decent employee relations. Located at First Avenue South and Spokane Street, Buffalo was founded by a Russian-Latvian family in 1931, and it has almost exclusively hired recent immigrants and refugees over the decades. The current employees who cut cloth and sort rags on the factory FLoor are white, African, African American, Laotian, Mexican, Cambodian, and Filipino, to name a few ethnicities and nationalities. Every non-management employee belongs to the Teamsters Local #117.

Teamsters #117 President Randy Vitcovich says the union's relationship with the company has been an amicable one for a long time. For a company with minimum-wage employees to have provided health benefits and pensions is worthy of praise, he notes. That's why more than 40 of the company's 120 employees have stayed with Buffalo for 10 years or more.

Now all that is changing. The fourth generation of Buffalo owners have recently taken over this multi-million-dollar company (its true net worth is unknown). Mark and Larry Benezra have less interest in their employees than they do in their profit margins. Last month the Benezra brothers told longtime shop steward Rosier Meriddie that they were no longer providing health benefits -- period. "Poor people like us have made them into millionaires," Meriddie says of the owners. "They feel that they don't have to pay [those benefits] because their competition doesn't pay them." The Benezra brothers did not return phone calls from The Stranger.

The Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice and the Teamsters are trying to raise awareness of the plight of Buffalo employees. They say they're going to ask the city and the private companies that contract with Buffalo -- including Boeing and United Airlines -- to give the rag manufacturer an ultimatum: Restore benefits to your employees or lose business with us. Vitcovich is talking to Seattle City Council members about Buffalo's city contract.

The employee benefits officially stop at the end of this month, and some employees will feel the pinch immediately. Fifty-four-year-old Germaine Killingsworth, for example, is afFLicted with a host of medical problems. Killingsworth, a four-year employee, has Hepatitis C, and doctors need to perform an expensive biopsy on her at the end of December. In addition, every four months Killingsworth needs to visit a doctor to make sure that the precancerous cells that have been found in her body have not turned into malignant cancer cells.

"If I can't continue my treatment, it could become life-threatening," she says. Without her employee benefits, Killingsworth is going to have to pay her own bills. That means paying upwards of $154 a month. The Benezra brothers are offering her a $1.30 an hour pay raise, but that won't be enough.

The Teamsters do not plan on making it easy for the Benezra brothers. Vitcovich recently filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries, which oversees safety issues in Washington companies. The agency investigated, and Buffalo has been slapped with $9,800 in fines, due to an unsafe work environment.

"It's a sweatshop," Vitcovich says. "If the [Benezras'] great-grandfather saw what [they] were doing to the company, he'd be disgusted."

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