Business

Workers rally in Kennewick for unions

KENNEWICK -- Hans Sommer makes about $15 an hour at his job at Albertsons supermarket. It took him 36 years to be able to earn that wage.

But it's barely enough to pay bills and raise a family as a single parent, said the Pasco man who works two jobs and also relies on food stamps. "Our (real) wages are falling as the cost of living keeps going up."

Sommer, 56, was among the 20 workers and citizen supporters who gathered Tuesday near the Panda Express restaurant on Highway 395 in Kennewick to show support for workers represented by Local 1439 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union.

Local 1439, which represents more than 6,000 workers in Eastern Washington, is in contract negotiations right now with about 26 businesses in the Mid-Columbia, said Keith Reed, a UFCW representative based in Kennewick.

Also, workers at Douglas Fruit Co. in Pasco are in the midst of a union organizing process, Reed said. They vote Thursday on whether to unionize, he said. Earlier in the year, Local 1439 helped workers at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Pasco form a union, he said.

It's important to support the workers' demand for family wage jobs, he said. Base wages for food workers haven't gone up in the last eight years,Reed said. Most workers make about $10 or less, and it's taking them longer to move up the pay-scale ladder to earn $14 or more an hour, he said.

"Workers are the backbone of the middle class," said Bob Parazin, chairman of the Benton County Democrats, who also came to express solidarity with the workers. The benefits the middle class today takes for granted were put in place with the help of organized labor movement over the years, he said. "We need to continue to support workers."

Tough economic conditions have forced grocery stores like Albertsons to reduce work hours for their employees, said Sommer, who works between 32 to 36 hours a week. That's not good news for hourly wage earners, he said. "It's difficult to make ends meet."

Workers have been gettinga raw deal from employers, said Larry Hall, president of UFCW Local 1439.

Yet business corporations don't appear to be shying away from granting hefty compensation to their top executives, Hall said. For example, Steve Burd, chairman, president and CEO of Safeway, made $6,250 an hour in 2008, a rate that fell to $5,236 an hour in 2009, said Hall, quoting data from supermarketnews, a trade publication.

It's time to turn those numbers around, he said. "We need family wage jobs. We need them now."

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

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