On this blog, I’ve written extensively about our ongoing state revenue problem. I’ve pointed out how the situation we’re in as a state is a result of the Great Recession that occurred after the actions of Wall Street bankers pushed our financial system to the brink of collapse. (See here, here and here for a few prior posts on the subject.)
I’ve also written in support of our public employees, who are being unfairly targeted by those who are eager to seize the nationwide budget crisis and use it to advance their political goals. (See here and here for more.)
I studied labor history in graduate school. I believe unions and collective bargaining were essential to the creation of the middle class and in banning practices, such as child labor and sweat shops, abuses that unfortunately still exist in other countries. (A little known fact is that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "The Rebel Girl," was arrested in Spokane 100 years ago as part of the free speech fights that labor activists and unions had with local governments and employers during the early days of the labor movement.)
Today, I see the targeting of public employees as part of an effort to systematically weaken the public sector, the social safety net, and the power of organized workers in general.
There is a national movement that is a well-financed and organized campaign to dismantle much of the legacy of the New Deal that helped working families recover from the Great Depression.
Asthis dynamic has played out in other parts of the country, such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, the focus has been not only on dramatically reducing public employee pay and benefits, but also trying to take away the right to collectively bargain.
There is a similar dynamic underway right here in Washington.
At the beginning of the legislative session, Senate Bill 5349 was introduced to eliminate collective bargaining rights for state workers.
And on the very same day that the Wisconsin Senate voted to weaken state workers’ collective bargaining rights, SB 5870 was introduced in our state Senate to break open the collective bargaining agreement that Gov. Gregoire recently negotiated with state employees and attempt to force state workers into even greater concessions than the 3 percent pay cut and a 25 percent increase in healthcare costs that they’d agreed to.
It bears repeating that state workers are not to blame for our revenue problem: we could require every state worker to take a one-hundred percent pay cut and we’d still be a billion dollars in the hole. Furthermore, unlike plenty of other entities that have a vested interest in the state budget – including businesses that receive tax exemptions – state workers have already shared in the sacrifice.
This is not to say that state workers won’t see additional sacrifices – they will, as the Legislature pursues more reforms to the delivery of services, closes down outmoded state-owned facilities, and eliminates additional positions as these and other efficiencies are identified and implemented.
But we cannot disregard the reduction of 6,000 positions (5 percent of the total state workforce), the salary freeze, the ten mandated unpaid furlough days (the equivalent of a 4 percent annual wage cut), the cut to health benefit plans (causing employees to pay up to $1,250 more per year in out-of-pocket medical expenses each) and the cut to over $840 million in negotiated compensation that have all already taken place.
After all this, state employees came to the negotiating table and agreed to a contract that achieves over $300 million in savings in the next budget cycle. Invalidating this agreement does not create any incentive for them to return to the table to negotiate, in essence, against themselves. If another agreement cannot be reached – and it’s reasonable to expect that it wouldn’t be – the previous contract would go into effect, and the considerable cost savings would be lost.
SB 5870 isn’t just politically unfair, it’s fiscally unsound.
It’s also unnecessary. If, at some later date, our revenue pictures worsens and the negotiated contract is found to be financially unfeasible, then the law requires the director of the Office of Financial Management (the governor’s budget office) to reopen and renegotiate the contracts. This has happened twice in the short history of collective bargaining for state workers (which became effective in 2005). However, it’s hard to make the case today that a contract which achieves $300 million in cost savings is currently financially unfeasible.
I speak for a majority of my Democratic colleagues in the Senate when I say we share with labor unions a basic philosophy of support for working families.
Since 2005, union membership has grown significantly under Democratic leadership as we’ve supported gains in workers’ right to organize and collectively bargain.
We’ll continue to do so as these rights become the targets of unjust attacks.