Labor tightens the screws on Democrats in the legislature

Angry over setbacks in the 2009 session, labor lobbyists this year are threatening to sit out the next election or run candidates against backsliding Democrats.
Crosscut archive image.

Rick Bender. state labor council chief

Angry over setbacks in the 2009 session, labor lobbyists this year are threatening to sit out the next election or run candidates against backsliding Democrats.

In politics, where the carefully parsed say-nothing sound bite reigns, there is something refreshing about the bluntness of labor leaders. They certainly don'ꀙt 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 'ꀜput its foot'ꀝ on a workers'ꀙ compensation reform bill before it could even get a committee hearing. The bill'ꀙs sponsor is Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris, a top Democrat in the House. Several other Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors. Bender'ꀙs response: 'ꀜWe 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 'ꀜa black mark against them'ꀝ for simply sponsoring or co-sponsoring a bill — like Morris'ꀙ workers'ꀙ comp bill — that labor opposes. In this case, Bender says the Morris bill is a 'ꀜvery bad bill for injured workers.'ꀝ

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'ꀙs top priority bill. Worse, the Democrats called in the State Patrol — an over-reaction to an email sent by one of Bender'ꀙs 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'ꀙt the only perceived slight in 2009. The Washington Education Association, the state'ꀙs teachers'ꀙ 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'ꀙt 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 'ꀜRace to the Top'ꀝ dollars. But in order to win the backing of the Washington Education Association, 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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,'ꀝ proclaims Bender.

By 'ꀜfull meal deal'ꀝ Bender means campaign contributions combined with a robust get out the vote (GOTV) effort that includes direct mail, phone banks and door knocking. 'ꀜI think they're concerned about a repeat of 'ꀘ94 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'ꀙs and Senate Majority Leader'ꀙs campaign funds, known as the Roosevelt and Truman funds, the council has started its own Political Action Committee. It'ꀙs called DIME, which stands for 'ꀜDon'ꀙt Invest in More Excuses,'ꀝ and the council plans to contribute directly to candidates it endorses. 'ꀜWe'ꀙre going to be very choosy in terms of who we'ꀙre going to support,'ꀝ warns Bender. And he'ꀙs not ruling out running candidates against incumbent Democrats if, in his words, they 'ꀜhave not been friends of working families.'ꀝ

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'ꀙs 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. 'ꀜThe big issue that is still undetermined is what is going to happen with the budget and revenue,'ꀝ says Bender. 'ꀜAnd we won'ꀙt know that until the end of session.'ꀝ


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors