Unionists sit-in at Washington State Capitol

OLYMPIA - As the Washington State Legislature went into special session March 13, state employees, striking Steelworkers and their allies began the third day of a spontaneous sit-in at the Capitol Building in support of two bills being kept from a vote even though they have majority support. The bills, both of which passed the Senate and have the support of Governor Gary Locke, would 1) give public employees collective bargaining rights, and 2) extend unemployment benefits to locked-out workers from the current six months to one year.

Both bills also have the support of the majority of House members, but are being prevented from a vote by Republican co-speaker Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee. Under a special set of rules that came about because the House is divided 49 to 49 between Democrats and Republicans, no bill can be voted on without the approval of the speakers of both parties.

Over 100 members of the Steelworkers Union and the Washington Federation of State Employees were sitting in the chamber's gallery on the afternoon of March 8 when an eleventh-hour attempt to override the exclusion of the bills was quashed.

Angry at the results, unionists began a spontaneous rally and sit-in just outside the House chamber. While demonstrations outside the Capitol Building are common, it was the first time the building itself had been occupied by protesters since a student anti-war demonstration in 1991.

The majority of demonstrators were Steelworkers who have been locked out at Kaiser Aluminum since December 1998 - their loud and passionate chants could be heard through the thick wooden double doors.

"Vote, Clyde, vote!" and "Do the right thing, Clyde," they yelled. As the demonstration continued, supporters came and went, and numbers fluctuated between 100 and 200. Police made no attempt to evict the protesters, and even allowed them to set up tables to serve pizza.

After a group of students from Evergreen State College came to support the sit-in, for a short while some used overturned trash cans as drums.

Demonstrators spent Wednesday night in the building, and continued their protest Thursday, the day the regular legislative session was scheduled to end.

"For all of us, it was a combination of frustration and deepening of resolve," said John Youngdahl, head of the Kaiser corporate campaign for the Steelworkers.

Serious disagreements on the budget and transportation issues kept the House from completing its business on schedule, so the governor called a special session to begin Monday, March 13, to address those issues and the two union bills.

When the special session opened, the occupation began anew, with unionists pledging to stay as long as people can stand to, sleeping on the cold marble floors if they must.

Ballard has said from the beginning he would not be moved by the protesters, and that he is philosophically opposed to the bills.

"The political insiders say this is a long shot," Youngdahl said. "For people 18 months out of work, though, it's well within reason something they want to put energy into."

March 17, 2000 issue

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