Union carpenters protest at Walgreens

By Pratik Joshi, Herald staff writerJune 4, 2010 

KENNEWICK -- Three union carpenters stood by a large banner that read, "Shame on Walgreens," on Thursday outside the Kennewick drug store on Clearwater Avenue near Highway 395.

The men distributed pamphlets but wouldn't speak. Their silent protest was part of a wider campaign against Walgreens in the Northwest for undermining local area labor standards, said Ben Basom, a representative of Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters in Portland.

The council, which represents carpenters in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, is affiliated with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters that is helping coordinate simultaneous silent protests at 48 locations in 12 states in the western United States, Basom said.

The silent protests may continue outside local Walgreens stores for next few weeks, said Eric Franklin, Kent-based spokesman for the regional carpenter council. It's about educating the public about Walgreens' actions that are driving carpenters to poverty, he said. The protesters don't urge store workers to refuse work or stop deliveries from suppliers.

For years, Walgreens has used the lowest-bidding contractors to construct or remodel its stores across the nation, Franklin said. Those contractors don't pay "area standard wages" to carpenters or provide them with health care and pension benefits, he said. Carpenters can't afford to be middle-class anymore, he said.

Robert Elfinger, a Walgreens spokesman, told the Herald in an e-mail that the company requires "all developers and contractors who build or remodel Walgreens stores offer their employees health insurance benefits and a living wage."

Walgreens also encourages union contractors to submit bids and a great number of its construction jobs are performed with union labor, he said.

But the company's policy on developers and contractors is not uniformly adhered to, Basom said. And that results in undermining the wages and benefits for the trade as a whole, he said. The contractors aren't necessarily bringing cheap labor from other areas, but they're hiring workers at lower wages, he said. "It'll perpetuate that race to the bottom."

Walgreens needs to choose contractors who pay a living wage wherever they work, he said. "Walgreens needs to be a good corporate citizen."

The labor union is fighting for principles, he said, adding the fight will benefit non-union carpenters as well.

-- Pratik Joshi: 582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com; Business Beat blog at www.tricityherald.com

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