Teamsters turn up heat on Darigold; IBT funds campaign calling for consumer boycott

A struggle between a union local and a dairy products company is turning into a battle for the hearts and wallets of consumers.

Late last week, a media campaign urging a boycott of Darigold products hit the radio airwaves and the large daily newspapers.

"We've shifted our focus from [picketing] the plants to a consumer boycott," said Mark Jones, secretary-treasurer on Teamsters Local 66.

WestFarm Foods, which markets its products under the Darigold brand, locked out its union workers Labor Day weekend at its plants in Issaquah and on Rainier Avenue, as well as its laboratory workers at the company's facility on Elliott Avenue near the Seattle Center. It began operating the Seattle-area facilities with newly hired replacements and experienced workers brought in from its non-union plants in Idaho.

The contract with the Teamsters local expired at the end of July. The company maintained that the union was in a strike posture, and a walkout would have left it without a way to process 700,000 gallons of its a highly perishable product each day.

Union leaders counter that the company is attempting to break the union. It points to the company's preparations for a lockout before the old contract had expired, and the considerable expense it incurred in hiring, housing, feeding and transporting the replacement workers, as well as the security crew it brought in to guard the entrances to its local plants.

Subsequent talks only widened the gap, with the company offering what it acknowledged to be a "less generous" proposal than its offer before the lockout. The company said then that the costs it incurred in preparing for a walkout was among the reasons it was left unable to offer what it previously had.

Teamsters set up pickets at other WestFarm facilities up and down the West Coast, to mixed effect. Some local contract language allows workers to honor pickets from other locals, and some doesn't. And that is among the issues now in dispute.

Rod Pearsall, a locked-out Rainier Avenue plant worker, said the importance of that contract language was brought home to him when he picketed a WestFarm plant in Portland.

"We stood there while our brothers crossed the picket line, but they didn't have any choice," Pearsall said outside the Local 66 office last week. "They would have lost their jobs."

"They [the company] wants picket line language removed from the contract," said Leo Schwartz, the Local 66 business representative. "They find it intolerable, but we need to have that language."

Outsourcing is also in dispute. The union is demanding language that protects its members' jobs.

"They want us to sign a contract that says they can outsource," Pearsall said. "They want us to sign away our own jobs. I can't do that. I'd rather walk away."

"The issue is outsourcing," said Jones, the Local 66 secretary-treasurer. "They took our jobs. They shut sown a union warehouse in Issaquah and opened a non-union warehouse in Kent."

Rae Klein, a WestFarm Foods spokesperson, said the Kent warehouse is run by a company it contracted with because it ran out of space at its Issaquah plant. The physical restrictions on its space there left it unable to expand, she said.

"We had no room to expand in Issaquah," Klein said. "We had 20 refrigerated trailers" in the lot just to store product. "We needed more warehouse space, so we contracted. It's not our warehouse ... It's an old issue. I don't know why they're beating that drum at the moment."

The company, a cooperative owned by its 716 member farmers, has maintained that it cannot meet the Local 66 contract demands without sacrificing its own long-term viability. Times are tough down on the farm, the company says, and some of its member farmers have been driven out of business. The company's thin margins (it said in a press release that its profits last year were $2.3 million on sales of $1.1 billion, or just a bit more than two-tenths of 1 percent) leave it struggling to compete with other dairy products companies, many of which pay their workers considerably less than WestFarm Foods does. The company has called the Local 66 demands unrealistic, and it points to the agreements it has reached with other Teamsters locals as evidence that it is bargaining fairly. Further, it argues that a boycott of Darigold products would hurt its union and nonunion workers as well as its member farmers.

The union people counter that the agreements reached with locals in smaller cities can't be compared with what is needed by its members in the Seattle area. And they see themselves as the union local to reverse the trend of worker giveaways.

"You have to realize that all up and down the West Coast, the dairy industry is looking at us," Pearsall said. "What happens to us will happen to everybody."

The stepped-up boycott campaign is being funded by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jones said. Full-page ads appeared in daily newspapers last week, and radio spots were heard on three of the more-listened-to local AM stations.

"The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has given up [on bargaining with the company]." Jones said. "They see that they're going to have trouble with these people up and down the West Coast."

Jones, who said he was a 20-year Darigold worker before taking his union position, was the lead negotiator until the lockout occurred. Now, Garnet Zimmerman, a Teamsters West Coast vice president, is the point man.

"The last two times we met with the mediator, Garnet took the lead," Jones said. "The company kept saying, 'We can't get to a deal with Mark Jones.' So we bring in Garnet and they pissed him off, too. And when you piss off the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, you have a problem."

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