March 6, 2009 Volume 110 Number 5
Washington: Recession strains labor's relationship with governor
Washington is facing a projected $8-billion-plus budget shortfall over the next couple years: Plummeting sales have sapped sales tax revenues, and sinking property values are expected to lower property tax revenues.
So far, Gov. Christine Gregoire has responded to the fiscal crisis with a hiring freeze, budget cut proposals, and by deciding not to ask the Legislature to fund a raise that her office negotiated with public employee unions last fall.
Gregoire’s approach has prompted some bad feeling among unionists who supported her re-election in a close race in November, said Washington State Labor Council spokesperson David Groves.
Gregoire canceled a scheduled appearance at a WSLC’s well-attended Feb. 26 legislative conference, citing illness. Had she attended, she would have heard the message that the state’s budget can’t be balanced just by adjusting one side of the ledger.
“There were lots of what she liked to call ‘tough decisions’ in [the governor’s proposed budget], but there wasn’t a single corporate or special interest tax break that she wanted to repeal,” Groves said. “If we’re talking about sharing the pain, the business community can’t be immune from that.”
Tax increases in Washington must get voter approval, and Groves predicts the Legislature will go to voters with some proposal. But lawmakers can reduce or eliminate tax breaks without a public vote. That’s something WSLC will push for.
Meanwhile, the state’s biggest public employees union, 19,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees, an affiliate of AFSCME, will go back to the bargaining table to renegotiate the current contract. The union sued the governor’s office for breach of contract when she failed to ask the Legislature to fund modest raises in a contract that’s supposed to begin July 1. But a Thurston County judge agreed with the governor’s office that a contract isn’t binding if it’s fiscally unfeasible. The union is appealing that decision, and will also take the matter to the Legislature.
When the budget forecast worsened, WFSE had thought the governor would propose layoffs and closures, and the union expected to renegotiate to avoid those. Union members wanted to be asked to return to the table, not told by the governor that she wasn’t going to ask lawmakers to fund the deal they’d agreed to. The union is planning a statewide “Day of Action” for Tuesday, March 17, including a rally at the Capitol, to send the message that an “all-cuts” budget is not the answer to the state’s fiscal crisis.
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