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Tensions are running high in Humboldt Creamery labor talks.



If negotiations between Humboldt Creamery and the union that represents most of its employees were not acidic enough, a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board threatens to sour the process further.

Last Friday, a day after the Fernbridge dairy cooperative's union employees voted 94-1 to authorize a strike, Redding-based Teamsters Local 137 fired off a complaint to the NLRB charging the Creamery failed to bargain in good faith, said Local 137 negotiator Dave Hawley.

The complaint also asks the NLRB - a federal agency that governs relations between unions and employers -- to force Humboldt Creamery to reveal its appraised value, Hawley said.

The filing capped a contentious week between Creamery management and the union, which represents about 130 employees, most of whom work on the plant's production floor.

"In the fourth bargaining session the company threw down its final offer 15 minutes into the session," Hawley said. "That's an unfair labor practice."

The union called for a strike vote after this, Hawley said.

Employees cast their votes at the Red Lion Inn in Eureka Thursday. But that doesn't mean a work stoppage will happen any time soon. Immediately after being informed of the vote, Creamery management asked for more bargaining sessions, Hawley said. Talks are scheduled to resume in early March.

Rich Ghilarducci, Humboldt Creamery's CEO, was on the road early this week and not available for an interview, said Terri Fisher, his assistant. Ghilarducci is the only Creamery executive authorized to answer questions about labor negotiations, she said.

Fisher provided a statement Ghilarducci released last week after the strike vote.

"We respect the decision of our employees," Ghilarducci said in the statement. "We look forward to continuing negotiations. We believe it is in the best interest of our employees, their families, and the community to reach a settlement."

From its inception in 1929 until the mid-1990s, Humboldt Creamery was a small association of local dairies whose market was pretty much confined to the North Coast.

Then in 1994-95 the Creamery embarked on a journey of ambitious expansion that continues today. It started with opening the Fernbridge ice cream plant in 1995. The Creamery started producing ice cream for a number of retail brands, including the Kirkland label, sold at Costco stores worldwide.

The Creamery has also become a leading wholesaler of powdered milk to markets around the world.

In 2004, the Creamery bought WestFarm Food's ice cream business, including the Darigold label and a plant in Los Angeles.

Today Humboldt Creamery's broad product line also includes specialty frozen confections sold at major pro and college sports stadiums in California and a recently launched line of organic milk and ice cream.

"They're building their little empire by securing these global markets," Hawley said. "But they're offering their employees nickels and dimes."

The Creamery's offer is a four-year contract that would raise the average wage from about $15 to $17 per hour, Ghilarducci's statement says. The pay for entry-level production workers would increase to $12.22 per hour. In addition, employee benefit packages add nearly $8 per hour to the compensation, the statement says.

"Our total compensation package includes, among other things, one to five weeks paid vacation, eight paid holidays, and paid sick leave," Ghilarducci said in the statement.

But Hawley said the company's offer is deficient because union dairy workers in Redding average about $18 per hour and employees in the Creamery's Los Angeles plant earn about $20 per hour.

"They can't say, `we're different from the rest of the dairy industry, we only have this small market.' They're out there in the market that everybody else is in," Hawley said.

The creamery has refused to file forms disclosing its appraised value, which Hawley says has increased significantly since 1998.

And that's what the second part of the complaint asks the NLRB to remedy, Hawley said.

"You can't cry poor and not back it up," he said. "The union has a right to verify."

Hawley said he mailed the complaint Friday. A spokeswoman in the NLRB's San Francisco office said Tuesday the complaint Hawley described has not been received.


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