February 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 3

Washington labor turns attention to Olympia

OLYMPIA — Washington’s labor movement will be paying close attention to Olympia in the next two months, and pushing for passage of a handful of bills that would expand worker rights.

The State Legislature meets annually in Washington, with shorter, 60-day sessions in even-numbered years.

The Washington State Labor Council, the statewide AFL-CIO body, identified several bills as priorities in the Legislature’s 2008 session, which began Jan. 14:

  • Expanding the collective bargaining rights of graduate teaching and research assistants. Grad students working at the University of Washington won the right to unionize in 2002, and today about 4,700 belong to United Auto Workers Local 4121. Now a bill would extend union rights to about 1,700 graduate assistants at Washington State University, which has campuses in Pullman and Vancouver.
  • Restoring unemployment insurance benefits to workers locked out by their employers during labor disputes in multi-employer bargaining units. A lockout is the employer equivalent of a strike. The grocery industry is an example of where this would make a difference. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union negotiates area-wide contracts with an employer association. In some cases, if the union can’t get an acceptable contract, workers may strike just one employer; employers, in solidarity, then might lock out workers at another employer to starve the union back to the table. If employers know the locked out workers will get unemployment insurance, they’ll be much less likely to use that tactic.
  • Giving whistleblower protection to state workers. This is the top priority of the Washington State Labor Council’s biggest affiliate — the 40,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees. WFSE, part of AFSCME, has more than doubled in the last five years since the passage of a law that gave state workers the right to bargain a union contract.
  • Granting benefits while a worker’s compensation case is being appealed. Right now, says WSLC President Rick Bender, workers whose claims are denied don’t get benefits while they appeal the rejection, and many who have been wrongly denied benefits are forced by economic hardship to settle their cases.

WSLC is also backing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s “Climate Action and Green Jobs” bill. The bill would direct the State Department of Ecology to design a regional carbon “cap and trade” proposal; require annual emissions reporting by all significant generators of greenhouse gases; and create new “green collar jobs” programs to provide training and apprenticeship opportunities.

And labor is supporting several health care reform proposals. One would create a work group to design a comprehensive health insurance program for Washingtonians. Another would require insurance companies to justify any rate hikes to the state insurance commissioner.

“The good news is we won’t be playing much defense,” Bender said. Democrats have the governor’s office and a substantial majority in the Legislature, including 34 of the 49 state senators, and 66 of the 98 state representatives.


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