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Tuesday, January 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:30 A.M.

Schools may get involved in dairy fight

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle School Board may weigh in on the soured relationship between Teamsters Local 66 and the maker of Darigold dairy products.

A draft letter from the board to the two sides implies the district might stop buying Darigold-brand milk if Teamsters workers, locked out since Labor Day, aren't returned to their jobs.

The district is a heavy milk consumer: Milk is offered daily at school breakfasts and lunches, or nearly 4.9 million meals in a school year.

According to the letter, the board is "deeply concerned" about the lesson sent to children "when adults cannot negotiate through their differences," and about the safety of Darigold products during the lockout.

Since contract talks broke down last August, WestFarm Foods, a co-op of 714 dairy farmers that processes milk and other dairy goods, has locked out about 200 Teamsters and hired replacement workers at its plants in Seattle and Issaquah.

While it is unusual for the Seattle School Board to take a position on an issue unrelated to education, the letter notes that Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims have urged Darigold to settle with its union workers.

All four of the School Board members elected in November received strong campaign support from unions and the King County Labor Council.

"Access to safe milk at school is a health issue, and we are concerned over the effect continued uncertainty has on the ability of our students to have a safe and reliable source of dairy products," wrote Brita Butler-Wall, the board's vice president.

"If this conflict is not resolved and Darigold's regular workers do not return to their jobs, the District may find it necessary to consider steps with respect to Darigold products to assure that the welfare of its students is protected."

The letter doesn't explain why board members feel the milk might be less safe now than it was before the labor dispute began.

The district's nutrition-services director, Carol Johnson, who oversees the school-lunch program, said she didn't know of the board's proposed action until contacted by a reporter.

Johnson said she believes Darigold milk is safe because health inspectors oversee dairy producers, and the district has experienced no problems with its milk supplier who primarily stocks Darigold products. The district has a one-year contract with the supplier.

Joel VanEtta, a WestFarm Foods spokesman, said the dairy-processor's products meet all government standards. "Darigold wouldn't put a product out there if it wasn't safe," he said.

As for the Seattle School Board's concerns about the labor dispute, "we're willing and ready to go back to the bargaining table to reach an agreement that both sides can live with," VanEtta said.

Mark Jones, an executive officer of Teamsters Local 66, said the board's letter "was very helpful" and that the union "would love to get to the bargaining table and get this thing resolved." He said the biggest issue now is WestFarm Foods' decision to use a nonunion warehouse.

The School Board plans to take action on the letter at its Feb. 4 meeting.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

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