Church Council joins locked-out Teamsters in push for darigold settlement

The labor battle between Teamsters Local 66 and WestFarm Foods heated up briefly last week when close to 200 union members demonstrated for an hour or so outside of the company's Darigold headquarters on Elliott Avenue West.

The union members carried paper cups with burning candles in them, and passing motorists, truck drivers and Metro bus drivers honked their horns in sympathy with the grim-faced dairy workers and members of other unions who showed up to lend support.

The demonstration on Feb. 4 also coincided with an appearance of Church Council of Greater Seattle representatives, who held short talks with company officials after delivering roughly 1,000 signatures on petitions calling for a return to the bargaining table and an end to the lockout in the 5-month-long hiatus.

Mark Jones, secretary-treasurer for Local 66, was hopeful the Church Council's involvement would help end the labor dispute. "I think it's going to make a very good impact," he said. "We see it as a positive thing."

Petitions, which the rank and file collected, included signatures from county and city officials, Jones said. Mayor Greg Nickels was among them, Jones added.

However, the company declined to end the lockout, and a previously sched-uled meeting the next day among the Teamsters, a federal mediator and Darigold officials failed to break the impasse.

Rev. Sanford Brown, executive director of the Church Council, was both pleased and disappointed after meeting with company officials, saying he appreciated the company's willingness to talk.

"We feel it's inappropriate for Darigold to sell its products in the community and not be responsible to the community," Brown said. "At the same time, we hoped they would bring back the Dari-gold workers during the talks."

That didn't happen because Darigold was afraid returning workers would resort to sabotage, according to Verlene Wild-er, president-elect of the Church Coun-cil's board. "We feel they should have faith in their workers," she said after the meeting with company officials.

That faith, if it exists, is strained. Union members were videotaped and photographed both during the demonstration and afterward as they left because of security concerns, according to WestFarm spokesman Joel VanEtta.

In addition, a temporary restraining order is currently in effect that prohibits Local 66 members from, among other things, blocking the company entrances or intimidating replacement workers WestFarm has hired.

Brown noted that the Church Council had already voted to unanimously to boycott Darigold products, "especially till Darigold brings its workers back." But since the lockout is still in effect, he called for the boy-cott to continue.

The conflict with WestFarm has caught the interest of other labor organizations, and interest in unions has surged because of the Seattle company and businesses such as Wal-Mart, according to Al Hovert, international vice president of the Teamsters.

Speaking at the demonstration, he said wages and benefits are the key to that interest. "We're basically eliminating the middle class if we eliminate the labor movement," Hovert added.

Mike Williams, president of Local 81 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said his organization was supporting the Darigold workers because they are facing the same issues that are confronting striking union grocery-store workers in California. He described the Church Council's involvement as "a big help because it's the community speaking through the church."

That assertion wasn't lost on the company. "WestFarm Foods respects the Church Council of Greater Seattle, its mission and the good work that it does in the community," according to statement released by Bill Anderson, vice president for legal and public affairs. "We also appreciate the Church Council's concern over this labor dispute."

It was a comment echoed by spokesman VanEtta. "We had a good and frank discussion with members of the Church Council," he said, adding that the petitions were taken into account.

"We hope we can come to an agreement," VanEtta said. He added that progress was made in the Feb. 5 discussions, the third set of talks held in the past month.

Local 66 officials don't quite see it that way. According the group's Web site, WestFarm started the session by saying the company had suffered deep losses during the past several years, losses that reached the "high seven figures" at the Dari-gold facility on Rainier Avenue South alone.

"This is all new information that has not been part of the negotiations until now," according to the Web site statement, which adds that the company is now seeking "concessionary bargaining" because of the losses.

However, WestFarm has agreed to let Local 66 audit the company's books, VanEtta said. In the meantime, negotiations have broken off until the audit is completed, according to the Teamsters.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at 461-1309 or

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