HARRISONBURG — Nine people taking part in a protest Wednesday outside the Cargill Inc. plant in Dayton were arrested on trespassing charges.

The protest was organized by the Committee For Community Solidarity With The Poultry Workers, which was formed last summer and consists of local residents supporting efforts to unionize poultry workers in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Several who attended said afterward that between 30 and 40 people, including former Cargill workers, took part in the protest.

The rally was called to support three employees who the group claims were fired for union activities and to deliver a petition demanding their jobs back.

Cargill denies claims that it has intimidated or harassed workers involved in union activity. A company spokesperson emailed a statement late Wednesday saying that “Cargill does not fire anyone for their union beliefs or for participation in a Union.” The statement further said that while the company fully supports the right to protest, “it must be done legally and ethically.”

Dayton Police Chief Daniel Hanlon and Mayor Charles Long issued a statement saying the department “enforces criminal law.”

“Regretfully, nine persons made the decision to violate a criminal code, and after being warned, were arrested,” they wrote in an email. “Our primary goal is first to provide neutral conflict resolution. That wasn’t entirely possible today.”

Dayton Police released the names of those arrested, all of whom were charged with trespassing: Michael Snell-Feikema, Bruce Lundeen, Bruce Busching, Colum Leckey, Philip Yoder, Nevin Zehr, John Fairfield, Yolo Moonsh-Adow, and Judith Wright.

Jeremy Aldrich, director of testing, career technical education and world languages for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, was among a group outside Rockingham County Jail awaiting the protesters’ release by late afternoon.

Aldrich, who attended the demonstration, said protesters gathered outside the plant and planned to give Cargill a petition.

They tried to hand the petition to someone in the human resources office, Aldrich said, and were arrested almost immediately after they stepped onto Cargill’s property.

He said the protest was specifically planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Aldrich wants Cargill to drop the charges, and said the company could have handled the situation “with a lot more tact.”

“If a manager had walked out, received the petition,” he said, “that would have been it.”

Nevin Zehr, 29, of Harrisonburg, one of the nine arrested, was charged with misdemeanor trespassing. The group believed it was important to deliver the petition to the company in person, he said.

He said company officials had said they would meet with the protesters and accept the petition. But Cargill, in its statement, said no meeting with management had been scheduled.

“We thought it was more important to be arrested attempting to do so,” he said, “than to give up and back down and be intimidated by them.”

James Madison University senior Kacey Dolan, 21, who was documenting the protest for a project, said the event felt more intense because of Cargill, not because of the protesters.

“I just wish that they had sent someone out … because this is such an important issue,” she said. “I wish that Cargill would take note [that] the community is caring about this issue and try and do something about it.”

Wednesday’s demonstration was at least the third protest since October outside the plant. Supporters also held a rally in Harrisonburg last spring.

Protesters were threatened with arrest at a demonstration in October while trying to deliver a letter to Randy Batson, general manager of the plant, detailing concerns that workers trying to start a union are being intimidated.

Several Cargill employees are working with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 in Harrisonburg to unionize the plant’s workforce. UFCW represents 35,000 workers in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Five poultry companies — Cargill, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, George’s Foods and Shenandoah Processing — are among Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s top 20 employers.

Each employs at least 100 workers, but Cargill has a workforce in excess of 1,000 in the Harrisonburg metro area, which includes plants in the city and county, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.

Contact Ellie Potter at 574-6286or epotter@dnronline.com.

Contact Nolan Stout at 574-6278 or nstout@dnronline.com.