In politics, where the carefully parsed say-nothing sound bite reigns, there is something refreshing about the bluntness of labor leaders. They certainly don’t mince words.
Take Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, the largest union organization in the state. I asked him last week if organized labor “put its foot” on a workers’ compensation reform bill before it could even get a committee hearing. The bill’s sponsor is Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris, a top Democrat in the House. Several other Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors. Bender’s response: “We gave [Democratic leaders] a list of a number of bills that we don't think should be heard [in committee], those that should be heard, and we do that every session."
Bender also acknowledges that Democratic lawmakers can get “a black mark against them” for simply sponsoring or co-sponsoring a bill — like Morris’ workers’ comp bill — that labor opposes. In this case, Bender says the Morris bill is a “very bad bill for injured workers.”
These are rare admissions about how the real game of politics is played in Olympia and the influence that powerful constituencies have on the process.
This year, the dynamic between labor and Democrats warrants especially close scrutiny, for the two sides are engaged in a delicate rapprochement. This follows the 2009 session when the Democratic leadership killed labor’s top priority bill. Worse, the Democrats called in the State Patrol — an over-reaction to an email sent by one of Bender’s lieutenants that appeared to link the fortunes of the pro-labor bill, which at the time were imperiled, to future campaign contributions. Labor has been fuming ever since.
That wasn’t the only perceived slight in 2009. The Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, was powerless to block passage of a sweeping education reform bill even as lawmakers were making deep cuts to K-12 funding.
Flash forward a year and the current, 60-day session is less than halfway over, but already there are clear indications that Democrats are extending olive branches to organized labor. Here are three examples:
1. Several labor-backed bills to extend collective bargaining rights to non-traditional union members, like musicians who play for a symphony, are alive and moving. This includes controversial daycare-unionization legislation. It died last year after the House and Senate couldn’t reconcile their differences. The House has once again passed its version of the bill.
2. Gov. Chris Gregoire has put forth a legislative package to better position Washington to compete for federal “Race to the Top” dollars. But in order to win the backing of the Washington Education Association, the governor’s proposals are restrained. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says the reforms — on merit pay, charter schools, and the ability to dump bad teachers — are so tepid that the state will almost surely fall short of winning the competition.
3. In the face of vehement opposition from labor, Democrats have no plans to tackle workers’ compensation reform this year even though it’s the business community’s top legislative priority. There will be a Senate “work session” on the topic, but don’t expect much more.
Something else to watch is whether labor is able to scuttle the governor’s plans to close and consolidate state institutions including prisons and institutions for the developmentally disabled. The Labor Council has made it a top priority to oppose those closures.
The trick for Democrats is striking the right balance. Just as they’re trying to mend fences with labor, they have to close another $2.6 billion budget shortfall and demonstrate to voters that they’re willing to take on entrenched interests.
That helps explain why, despite union opposition, the senate has already passed a state employee furlough bill. It calls for state agencies to close one day a month for the next year. There are concessions to the unions in the legislation, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Labor Council hotly oppose furloughs.
All of this is happening in a high-stakes election year. All House members and about half of state senators are up for re-election in 2010. Democrats need their base to be fired-up and ready to work.
Democrats fear another 1994-style Republican rout. It so happens that 1994 was the last time Democrats and labor in Washington were seriously on the outs. That year labor essentially sat out the election. The Labor Council’s Rick Bender remembers it well. "They lost every close election in 1994, and had we done the full meal deal they would have won a number of those elections,” proclaims Bender.
By “full meal deal” Bender means campaign contributions combined with a robust get out the vote (GOTV) effort that includes direct mail, phone banks and door knocking. “I think they're concerned about a repeat of ‘94 that's for sure," says Bender. "I would be if I was a Democratic legislator."
Already, as a result of last session, the Labor Council has changed its approach to campaign contributions. Instead of giving directly to the Speaker of the House’s and Senate Majority Leader’s campaign funds, known as the Roosevelt and Truman funds, the council has started its own Political Action Committee. It’s called DIME, which stands for “Don’t Invest in More Excuses,” and the council plans to contribute directly to candidates it endorses. “We’re going to be very choosy in terms of who we’re going to support,” warns Bender. And he’s not ruling out running candidates against incumbent Democrats if, in his words, they “have not been friends of working families.”
Challenging incumbent Democrats is an increasingly attractive option now that Washington has a top-two primary system, where the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election even if they are from the same party. But it's far from a proven strategy. Witness what happened in Seattle's 36th legislative district race in 2008 when liberal John Burbank was bested by political newcomer and moderate Reuven Carlyle. The question this year will be: Can candidates like Carlyle hold onto their seats especially if the unions line up behind the Burbanks of the world?
It’s pretty clear the wounds of last session are still fresh. And while Bender says this session, so far, is off to a better start, he adds the defining issue will be how the Democrats close the budget gap. Bender wants to see lawmakers pass a more robust revenue package than $780 million that Gregoire is proposing. “The big issue that is still undetermined is what is going to happen with the budget and revenue,” says Bender. “And we won’t know that until the end of session.”
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