April 3, 2009 Volume 110 Number 7

Schism widens between labor, Washington Dems

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

The once strong working relationship between organized labor and three top state Democrats has chilled so much, it’s hard to say if Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown can any longer be called “friends of labor.”

Back in 2008, all three politicians told the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) on video that they would help pass its top priority legislation — a bill called the Worker Privacy Act. Machinists District Lodge 751 Political Director Larry Brown still has a voice-mail from the governor with that promise. The bill would bar employers from disciplining workers who refuse to attend workplace meetings called for the sake of bashing unions.

But after Boeing came out in a big way against the relatively modest labor rights reform, the three Democratic leaders announced March 11 they had decided to kill the bill — and call the police about a WSLC e-mail that threatened to halt campaign contributions for Democrats. Gregoire, Chopp and Brown said the e-mail crossed a line by linking campaign contributions to action on a particular bill. The e-mail, from WSLC special assistant Jeff Johnson, was a summary of a strategy conference call about the Worker Privacy Act. One bullet point said union leaders would “send the message, ‘not another dime from labor’ until the governor signs the Worker Privacy Act.”

On March 17, the Washington State Patrol issued a statement announcing the result of its investigation: “Detectives were quickly able to determine the e-mail did not violate criminal statutes.”

Cleared of wrongdoing, WSLC President Rick Bender issued his own official statement: “Referring the matter for possible criminal prosecution was a gross overreaction and never should have happened.”

“An honest mistake occurred in copying this e-mail to some legislators who already supported our legislation, so to characterize this internal e-mail as some kind of threat to legislative leaders — or a possible crime — is absurd,” Bender said. “It was very obviously intended to be an internal labor e-mail, one that began with the salutation ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ which is never how we would address a state legislator.”

Meanwhile, another e-mail surfaced following a public records request from Associated Press correspondent Curt Woodward. Dated March 6, it is from Boeing lobbyist Trent House to Bill McSherry, Gregoire’s special liaison to Boeing. House said he’d counted votes: Most legislators would side with labor if the Worker Privacy Act came up for a vote.

“This bill must not come up for a vote, or it will pass with a large margin,” House wrote to the governor’s aide. “I don’t believe that Senate and House leadership can make this call on their own. I think they need and expect the governor to share the responsibility.”

It would appear the three Democratic leaders stuck to the Boeing lobbyist’s script. Except that — instead of candidly saying they would renege on their pledge to organized labor in order to please the politically powerful aerospace giant — the three Democratic leaders hid behind a found e-mail. None of them contacted the labor council for an explanation of the e-mail before referring the matter to the Washington State Patrol.

As Everett Herald columnist Jerry Cornfield put it, Chopp, Brown and Gregoire “needed a way out because [they] weren’t bold enough to come out and declare the bill dead.… with Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?”

As for Boeing, why is the longtime union employer so opposed to the bill? Here’s one explanation: Boeing has aggressively outsourced aircraft parts production in the last decade, much of it to local nonunion contractors. The company saves money if parts are cheaper, and parts can be cheaper when the workers who make them make lower pay and benefits. If workers at aircraft suppliers unionize, they might improve wages and benefits, and that might cut into the Boeing profit model.

Mandatory-attendance anti-union meetings are one of the most effective ways employers defeat union campaigns. The Worker Privacy Act wouldn’t ban the meetings, but workers would no longer be forced to attend out of fear they’d be disciplined.

“The fact that there is so much pushback by employers tells us that there’s a lot of abuse going on that they want to continue,” said Machinists District Lodge 751 spokesperson Connie Kelliher.

WSLC hasn’t given up on passing the bill. Democrats outnumber Republicans 64 to 34 in the House and 31 to 18 in the Senate. And ostensibly, the Worker Privacy Act has strong support, with 47 House sponsors and 21 Senate sponsors. In an open letter to the three leaders, WSLC called for “a moment of truth: All we ask is for a fair vote. If it fails, so be it. Our elected representatives are adults. They can explain why they voted ‘yes’ or why they voted ‘no.’”

But when WSLC and a group of labor leaders met with Gregoire, Chopp, and Brown March 25, the fate of the Worker Privacy remained unresolved, with WSLC calling on the three to use their power to give it a vote, and the three not budging.

The meeting lasted 75 minutes, and it was tense. Gregoire, Chopp and Brown gave no kind of apology nor any indication they’d bring it back for a vote, said WSLC spokesperson Kathy Cummings, who took part in the meeting.

“The governor even said in the meeting that she didn’t think there were really criminal charges. Then why did she agree to send it to the police?”

“All of labor was offended on this,” Cummings added, but the three leaders didn’t seem to understand that. “They gave us their word, and they went back on it. They indicated all along to us up until the very end that they wanted to pass this bill.”

“It came out plainly in the meeting that it was all about Boeing’s position. We talked about it point-blank. [Gregoire] said she was trying to save the Democrats from being blamed if Boeing left the state,” Cummings said.

“We’re getting a lot of angry e-mails and phone calls from our members,” Cummings said. “They’re angry.”

Union officials have called on legislators in the working families caucus to ask leadership for a vote. But they’re not optimistic that the lawmakers will defy legislative leadership.

“We mobilize a lot of volunteers during the election, to knock on doors, make phone calls,” Cummings said. “We work very hard to elect working family friendly legislators. Trying to get those volunteers out in the next election is going to be very hard.”

The incident has “severely strained” labor’s relationship with state Democratic leaders, Bender said in the labor council’s official statement.

Says Cummings: “At this point, there’s basically a huge schism between labor and the Democratic leadership of Washington.”

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