Planting the seeds of solidarity

As a steward, Kim King sits on the union bargaining team. She says her favorite part of negotiations is when the union proposes an improvement, and managers respond by saying that’s not something they traditionally offer. “I tell them thats’ why we are asking for it now,” King said. “We want to start that tradition.” | Photo by Cheryl Juetten

By MALLORY GRUBEN

Kim King’s first lesson as a union steward was the sound a good union contract makes when it hits the table.

Twenty years ago, King was a residential counselor at Columbia River Mental Health in Vancouver and she and her coworkers had just signed their first contract as members of AFSCME Local 2699, winning raises for workers who previously made $8.80 an hour. King took that contract with her to her first union conference, and attended a workshop to review labor agreements.

“Everybody else pulled out their contracts, and we heard a thud as they hit the table,” King said. “And we pulled out this little tiny paper that was stapled and folded.”

King resolved to beef up her contract by fighting to add more protections for her coworkers. Today King, 58, is a shop steward at the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington (AAADSWA). She’s also a trustee for Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 11, and a delegate to the Southwest Washington Central Labor Council. She rarely misses a union meeting. She helps organize new departments. She defends her coworkers when employers violate their contract. And she helps negotiate agreements that improve pay, benefits, and working conditions. 

“If I needed a union steward in my corner, fighting for something in my workplace, Kim would be one of the people I wanted,” said Local 11 rep Karyn Morrison.

‘Planting seeds’

King served as union secretary and steward at Columbia River Mental Health for almost 15 years. She became a member of OPEIU Local 11 in 2010 when it took over for AFSCME as the shop’s bargaining representative. In 2015, she went to work as a counselor at another agency represented by Local 11, the Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington (AAADSWA). Her first week on the new job, King attended a union meeting, and the union rep recognized her from her old job. When no one else stepped up to fill a vacant steward role, he nominated her.

King encourages her coworkers to engage with the union. She distributes union meeting notices to every employee’s desk, instead of relying on the rarely read break room bulletin board. Attendance has soared in her department: Seven people attended the first meeting Kim led in 2015. Now stewards hold two sessions to accommodate 30 to 40 attendees.

AAADSWA is a state agency, so workers are public sector employees. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision says no public employee can be required to pay union dues or fees. Despite that, Local 11 rep Cheyenne Russell estimates that about 95% of the 65 AAADSWA workers eligible for the union are dues-paying members — in no small part because of King.

“Kim has no problem telling people why they should join,” Russell said. “She’s always looking for opportunities to grow the union.”

If management sends out an all-staff email announcing a new policy or pay raise, King replies all to add, “Thank you to the union for negotiating that,” Russell said. King once overheard a coworker complaining about back pain from his chair. He told her he was going to buy a new chair. King saved him money by showing him the contract provision that says the employer must pay for ergonomic accommodations.

She also talks up benefits, like travel or mortgage discounts, available for members of any union on UnionPlus.org. King says on her most recent Labor Day vacation, she saved $300 on her hotel room.

King calls it “planting seeds” — showing workers how union membership can serve them. It led to more departments at AAADSWA deciding to go union, including the resource center workers.

“Kim will show up in a tie dye shirt, and you think people won’t take her super seriously, but when she talks, she just has such a strong voice and has so much experience behind what she has to say,” Russell said. “It empowers other members to find their voice, too.”

‘Momma cat’

As a steward, King represents workers by serving as an observer when they’re called into disciplinary meetings and investigations. King can’t talk about specific cases because of confidentiality rules, but over the years she’s defended members against discrimination, favoritism, and contract violations. King said her biggest pet peeve is managers who violate the contract without knowing, because they never read the agreement.

“The fact that I have to pull out my contract for them to show them they are wrong, that shouldn’t have to happen,” King said.

Local 11 Executive Secretary-Treasurer Howard Bell said King calls herself a “momma cat” in her emails. Outside of work, she fosters kittens that need to be bottle fed or require other special care. As a steward, she’s protective of her colleagues.

King was the first member to question Bell’s ability to represent Local 11’s nonprofit members. He had spent a 34-year career at Northwest Natural Gas, a private utility company and Local 11’’s largest unit.

“She actually called me out at a general membership meeting in front of everyone,” Bell laughed. “I think she made the comment that there was an elephant in the room. She wanted to get it straightened out.”

Since then, Bell has earned her seal of approval by trying to learn more about the nonprofit sector, King said.

King’s frankness shows up at the bargaining table, too. Morrison, the Local 11 staff rep, has watched King go toe-to-toe with well-trained human resource leaders. Once while debating wage proposals with the management bargaining team, King got so fired up that Morrison had to call an emergency caucus — where bargaining pauses so each team can meet privately — and ask her to take a breather. The union had proposed a 6.3% raise, and managers countered with 3.5%.

“I looked at them and said, ‘You know, that’s a slap in the face.’ And the look on their faces was priceless because I don’t think they were even looking at it that way,” King said. “Sometimes, they just need to be told it straight out.”

When King and Morrison returned from the emergency caucus, the nonprofit had a new proposal: 5.5% raises.

“This was during COVID … so after they left the room, Kim looked at me and said, ‘I’m so glad I’m wearing a mask, because the smile under this is huge,’” Morrison said.

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