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Tri-City Goodwill votes to join Teamsters

Employees at seven Goodwill Industries of the Columbia stores in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Wenatchee voted to join Teamster Local 839 union last week. Employees had cited low wages, substandard benefits and unsafe working conditions.
Employees at seven Goodwill Industries of the Columbia stores in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Wenatchee voted to join Teamster Local 839 union last week. Employees had cited low wages, substandard benefits and unsafe working conditions. Tri-City Herald file

The two dozen employees at seven Goodwill Industries of the Columbia stores in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Wenatchee are joining Teamsters Local 839 after a vote last week.

In a news release, the union said employees spoke out against low wages, substandard benefits and unsafe working conditions.

Workers approached the Teamsters about representing them, said Russell Shjerven, secretary-treasurer for the union.

“They don’t like the fact that they don’t have any real protection at work,” he said. “They can be let go at any time.”

Goodwill CEO Gordon Comfort is disappointed with the decision to join the union, which he said passed by a narrow 12-10 margin.

Workers can pay $76 a month to get health and life insurance with a $250 deductible, he said.

“Our benefits are really second to none,” Comfort said. “According to our insurance carrier, they don’t know anybody who has better benefits than we do.”

Goodwill also has not seen its state Labor & Industries insurance go up in years, and has actually received rebates, Comfort said. He said that would not happen if the jobs were unsafe.

“There are some things in there that just are patently false,” he said of the union’s news release.

The union says many workers have been at Goodwill for 10 years, but still make barely minimum wage and have no access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

“One or two” longtime employees might be near minimum wage, Comfort said, adding that the union used negative tactics to entice people to vote in its favor.

“There were a lot of inaccuracies on their side, as far as what they said was happening,” said Comfort, who is also running for a position on the Richland School Board against incumbent Phyllis Strickler.

It is common for workers at nonprofit agencies to join unions, Shjerven said. He said his Teamsters chapter represents Benton Franklin Head Start, while some United Way branches are unionized.

Both sides say they wish to work toward negotiating a deal once the vote is certified, which is expected to happen this week.

“The first contract is hard to get,” Shjerven said. “It depends on if they want to play hardball or if they want to negotiate in good faith.”

Goodwill’s stores provide training to people with disabilities and other social disadvantages.

The vote comes less than a week after Goodwill closed the Shop CI thrift store, which it recently took over, in Kennewick. Comfort said it will reopen in a couple of months as a Goodwill store after renovations to the building.

The dozen workers at Richland’s PermaFix Northwest plant also voted last week to join Teamsters, after an attempt to unionize failed last year, the news release said. PermaFix repackages debris from Hanford waste that is contaminated with plutonium.

“Winning two elections in one day was a good sign,” Shjerven said. “It’s a sign that more workers are looking for protections in the economy we live in.”

Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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