August 7, 2009 Volume 110 Number 15

WSLC proposes overhaul of its approach to politics

Some Democrats in the state of Washington may find out next year whether there are consequences for backstabbing a core group of supporters.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and the top Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate told leaders of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), AFL-CIO, last year that they would support the federation’s top-priority — a bill called the Worker Privacy Act. The bill would bar employers from firing workers who refuse to attend workplace anti-union meetings. But they reneged on that promise, and added public insult to the injury when they announced in a press conference that they had asked state police to investigate an internal WSLC e-mail. Police concluded no laws were broken by the e-mail — which contained notes from a meeting, including a bullet point that seemed to threaten “not another dime” from labor to state Democratic campaign funds if Democrats didn’t pass the bill.

But that wasn’t all. Democratic majorities refused to pass bills of importance to labor, and passed other bills over labor’s objections. Bills failed that would have created a paid family leave benefit for workers, or allowed child care workers, performing artists, or university lecturers to unionize.

Meanwhile, lawmakers gave business a break on unemployment taxes, and passed a state budget that contained dramatic cuts to schools and services. For organized labor, it was a terrible legislative session.

And that was after unions had poured dollars and volunteer hours into re-electing Gregoire and sending more Democrats to Olympia. Democrats dominate the House 64 to 34 and the Senate 31 to 18. The sweeping betrayal led to months of soul-searching by unionists, and prompted the labor federation to rethink its approach to politics.

Delegates to this week’s WSLC convention are considering a number of proposals, including formation of a new political action committee, the “DIME PAC.” DIME here stands for “Don’t Invest in More Excuses,” but it’s also a reminder of the phrase “not another dime” from that leaked e-mail. DIME PAC is conceived as a way for unions to target campaign contributions more strategically. No longer is labor likely to contribute to party-wide funds. WSLC spokesperson Kathy Cummings said it’s also been customary in the past for unions to make nominal contributions to friendly politicians who are not facing serious election challenges. The problem is those politicians often pass on the contributions to party leaders, who may use it to help elect Democrats who are not close to labor.

WSLC also wants to develop a new method for rating lawmakers. Cummings said it has become common practice for Democratic leaders to “protect” their members from individual accountability to labor — either by preventing bills from getting a vote or by blocking roll-call votes in which there’s a record of how lawmakers voted. Those practices make it hard for labor to rate lawmakers’ votes on priority bills. Also, the traditional rating system gives legislators credit for voting the right way on the final passage of the bill, even if they actively worked against the legislation during the committee process or in caucus meetings. For example, some legislators who co-sponsored the Worker Privacy Act reportedly worked behind closed doors to quash it and avoid a vote, after being pressured by Boeing and other business interests.

All this is on the agenda at the convention, which started Aug. 6, after this issue went to press.

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