Why Wisconsin Fever isn't heading to our state

Public employee unions are well dealt into both parties in this state, so they won't be pushed to the wall. But keep your eye on Boeing labor talks and "sustainability" proposals that aim for a grand compromise.

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Rob McKenna

Public employee unions are well dealt into both parties in this state, so they won't be pushed to the wall. But keep your eye on Boeing labor talks and "sustainability" proposals that aim for a grand compromise.

Wisconsin is a state similar in size to Washington (5,698,000 compared to our 6,753,000); it has a deep progressive tradition. Could the attempted radical rollback of public employee unions in Madison spread to Olympia? Not likely, I would argue.

Consider first the tiny ripple in the current session of the Legislature. A small group of Senate Republicans offered bills, all of which died without even getting a hearing, to repeal the state's 2002 collective bargaining law with state employees, enact a right-to-work law aimed at public employee unions, and enhance privatization of services. Instead of fireworks over such bills, the Washington Federation of State Employees ratified a two-year contract with the state, including more furlough days (amounting to a 3 percent pay cut) and nudged up slightly the percentage employees' share of health-insurance costs. Business as usual.

Tim Welch of the Washington Federation of State Employees told the Vancouver Columbian: "It does baffle us why the Senate Republicans have it in for state employees so much. We have a bipartisan approach to endorsements and political contributions." In Wisconsin, by contrast, politics are much more polarized, with each party dominated by fire-breathing purists.

What might happen, assuming hard times continue and Republicans gain more ground in Olympia, is for the Legislature to take back authority over setting state employee pay and benefit increases. Since 2004, that authority to bargain rests solely with the governor, with the Legislature only able to vote whatever deal is worked out up or down. Politically, it's nice to blame the governor for being too stingy or too generous. But if the conservatives want to make a better public case they need the forum of Legislative debate; in turn that public dust-up might make the governor less generous to the unions, her strong political supporters.

Another reason for not expecting an outbreak of Cheesehead Politics is the historically fairly cordial relations between public employee unions and Republicans. Back in the Dan Evans' era (1964-76), state employees and teachers were a big part of the modern Republican coalition.

Republican strategists tell me that the GOP in this state has long had good relations with police and firefighter unions, as well as some private-sector unions such as carpenters and occasionally Teamsters, in part because blue-collar sensibilities can be partial to social conservatism. AFSME has long known to keep the doors open to both parties, pulling statewide Republicans often toward the center. The State Labor Council is another matter, being considered an automatic extension of the Democratic Party. Service Employees in SEIU are also thought to be allergic to Republicans, and even try to punish Democrats who veer toward moderation. (Some of the Democrats who survived these efforts to purge them are now very much free agents.)

Had Dino Rossi won the governorship and had Republicans won the state Senate, there probably would have been a whiff of Gov. Scott Walker, though it's more likely that the heavy financial backers of Walker would look to more promising states for a strong backlash than the basically blue Evergreen State, and the whole West Coast for that matter.

And what if Attorney General Rob McKenna gets elected governor in 2012? Partly by design and partly because he really is hard to read, McKenna gives little indication that he would be that kind of a radical reformer, that far from the center, that ready for term-consuming warfare. On the other hand, if Badger Fever does start to sweep the country, a Republican conservative fire-breather in Washington might decide to challenge McKenna in the primary, putting this rollback agenda on the table for others to coopt and adapt to.

Likely, then, we'll have more of the same decades-long truce, with unions conceding just enough to still the public clamor. Meanwhile, the real labor battle of the next year will be with Boeing, where the Machinists' current four-year contract expires in 2012. Boeing has made it clear, after three of the past four contract negotiations resulted in strikes, that a strike this time would really load up the U-Hauls for South Carolina and other weak-labor states.

The company argues that such strikes discourage plane buyers, messing up their scheduled deliveries. (A situation not helped by the company's delays on the 787, one might add.) Last time, Boeing pushed for a no-strike contract, which was understandably resisted by the IAM national leadership. But the move to Charleston may have produced an effective no-strike dynamic for the next talks. With the economy perilous and Democratic politicians forced to stand with Boeing to keep the jobs here, this is no time for politicians of either party to launch a union-busting campaign.

Wisconsin's showdown is a made-for-cable-news event. The more serious talk, at least in this state, is about trying to find a kind of Grand Bargain with both parties and the unions that leads to a more sustainable budget going forward. This is what business leaders such as Greg Smith of Microsoft and the Greater Seattle Chamber are looking for. A born-anew Gov. Gregoire, looking for legacies, may also be in this camp. Unsustainable is to make temporary cuts (unfilled positions, furloughs) that keep staffing levels and salaries and benefits in hibernation, but then come roaring back when the economy allows (or more Democrats get elected to Olympia). That produces another spending spree, more bow waves, and another mighty splat.

Accordingly, one of the most interesting ideas to surface in this past session has been the proposal by Sen. Rodney Tom, the Bellevue Democrat, for a 5-5-25 formula: 5 percent pay cut (not furloughs), 5 percent reduction in positions (not unfilled positions), and 25 percent employee contribution to health insurance benefits (versus the current 15). If that proposal were combined with some share-the-pain measures for the affluent you have the making of a potent centrist peace treaty. That Democrats like Tom are now willing to urge such ideas, which normally would have been squashed by the leadership, is another sign that the old order of binge spending and horrible hangovers may be fading away.


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