By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
SNOHOMISH — They worried about proposed changes in their health care. They fretted about the potential loss of their ability to bargain.
Nearly 1,000 teachers rallied Tuesday evening at Glacier Peak High School to let state lawmakers know how they feel about those issues.
“Anybody who says the proposed changes aren’t going to cost the taxpayers … well, it’s hogwash,” said union official Arden Watson from Marysville. “I don’t trust yet another layer of state bureaucracy.”
School employees from Everett, Marysville, Mukilteo, Snohomish, Monroe, Lake Stevens, Granite Falls, Sultan and Skykomish school districts expressed their concerns about Senate Bill 6442, which aims to put teachers and classified personnel in a state-run pool for health care insurance. It’s still being discussed in the special session.
The Washington Education Association and its regional affiliates, including the Pilchuck Uniserv Council, believe the bill would eliminate their current health care system, which is negotiated now at the school district level, and begin to erode their bargaining rights on the state level.
WEA officials said the current health insurance system would be replaced with a state bureaucracy that would cost more and provide fewer benefits.
Some part-time school employees could lose their health insurance under the proposal, which WEA officials say would cost taxpayers $45 million over the years, beginning in 2014.
On the other hand the bill has support from the Public School Employees union, which represents primarily classified staff who believe they stand to obtain better benefits. A group of Public School Employees union members handed out fliers outside the high school as teachers entered the Glacier Peak gym.
Critics of the teachers union claim that the bill would create efficiencies and accountability, and that the WEA is trying to protect its financial relationship with Premera Blue Cross, though many teachers are covered by Group Health.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is the prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate. He did not show up at the rally Tuesday, nor did Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, most of the lawmakers from the 21st Legislative District or anyone from the 39th. On hand to hear from the teachers were Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish; Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds; Reps. Derek Stanford and Luis Moscoso and Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, Democrats from the 1st Legislative District; and Reps. John McCoy and Mike Sells and Sen. Nick Harper, Democrats from the 38th district.
To laughter from the audience, a life-size cardboard cutout photo of Hobbs was paraded in front of rallying teachers. Hobbs later saw photos of the event, including his cutout.
“I appreciate the fact that they had a cardboard cutout that fit my body,” Hobbs said Wednesday. “Actually, it seemed to make me look a bit thinner.”
Hobbs maintains that the bill preserves a majority of collective bargaining rights for union members.
The idea that it erodes the right to bargain for benefits “is just a red herring that WEA is throwing out there,” Hobbs said.
However, Hobbs said the manner in which eligibility and benefits offered in health insurance plans are determined would change. They would be negotiated on a statewide level with an even number of representatives of the workers and school districts at the table, Hobbs said.
The WEA administers a majority of the insurance plans offered to teachers around the state, and the union earns money in the form of fees, he said.
“That’s what they’re fighting for,” Hobbs said.
The lawmakers attending the rally had a different view, with most saying they oppose Senate Bill 6442.
While Moscoso plans to “remain true” to the bargaining arrangements with teachers in the state, the representative from Mountlake Terrace said Tuesday before the rally that he wishes the classified and certificated school employees had worked together on the health insurance matter before the Public School Employees union asked for legislative action.
Michelle Ramey, a Shoreline teacher who lives in Lake Stevens, attended the rally because she wants to keep her current health care plan.
“We want to continue to have the ability to bargain with our local school districts regarding our health care,” Ramey said. “If you don’t have that, you begin to lose your rights.”
Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association, calling herself “a union thug,” told the crowd that teachers are under attack because they belong to a union that doesn’t include millionaires.
“We have the support of the families of our students and they know the middle class has to continue to have a voice,” Mead said. “In Olympia, we are still begging for money for our students and now we are having to ask that our rights be upheld, too.”
Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.