Unions prepare to play defense in Washington Legislature

Following the November election, Washington state union leaders had high hopes for pro-worker legislation in the state capitol. Now — thanks to a pair of Democratic turncoats in the state Senate — labor is preparing for defensive fights.

On Dec. 10,  Senate Democrats Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Mason County announced they would join with 23 Senate Republicans to form a “Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.”

In effect, the two Democrats are colluding with the Senate Republican minority to deprive the 26-member majority Democrats of Senate leadership. The way it works, Tom gets to be Senate majority leader, Sheldon becomes president pro tempore, and Republicans get to chair the most important committees. For example, Eastern Washington Republican Janéa Holmquist Newbry — who has sponsored past bills to weaken the prevailing wage — will now chair the Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee (which she prefers to call the “Commerce and Labor Committee”).

Washington, like Oregon, is becoming a solidly “blue” state, with Democrats now occupying eight of the nine statewide elected offices, and holding 55-43 and 26-23 majorities in the state House and Senate, respectively. But this legislative coup makes it possible for Senate Republicans to block Democratic proposals.

“We expect the Senate majority to be hostile to labor’s interests,” says David Groves, publications director at the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), the state-level AFL-CIO body.

Nonetheless, WSLC plans to push a proactive agenda — “legislation that puts us on a high road to recovery by investing in jobs, increasing revenue and protecting families through strengthening our social and workplace safety nets.”

The agenda starts with a call for major reinvestment in transportation and transit. Groves says the labor federation hopes to rally the business and environmental communities behind a 10-year, $20 billion funding package to maintain and operate the state road and ferry system, improve freight mobility, and restore public mass transit.  [Ferries are considered an extension of the state highway system under the Washington state constitution, but service has been reduced in recent years as the state has faced budget crises.]

Other proposals include:

  • Cracking down on misclassification of employees as independent contractors, as well as violations of the requirement to pay minimum wage, prevailing wage, and overtime.
  • Mandating a preference for in-state goods and services in the state procurement process.
  • Establishing a Washington Investment Trust, modeled after the Bank of North Dakota: State bank balances would be withdrawn from big Wall Street banks and instead lent to local governments for public infrastructure projects — at lower interest rates than the private bond market. The Trust would also fund student loans.
  • Reforming the state workers’ compensation system, giving injured workers information about how their benefits are calculated, and providing for attorneys fee awards in medical claims appeals, to give injured workers a more usable right to appeal.

WSLC will also be ready to oppose any bills to repeal Washington’s annual minimum wage increase, make it harder to get unemployment benefits, or expand a new program of lump-sum injured worker payouts. [The lump sum option was sold to legislators as a cost-saving alternative to long-term workers compensation payments for injured workers over the age of 55, but it can result in reduced compensation over time.]

The 2013 legislative session runs from Jan. 14 to April 28. WSLC will hold its annual legislative conference March 7 at the Olympia Red Lion.

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