Washington state taking on unions in its own way

  • By Jerry Cornfield, Herald Columnist
  • Sunday, February 27, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Nearly 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan executed a signature action of his presidency when he fired 11,000 striking federal air traffic controllers.

This bold move against a public workers union — and one that had endorsed him no less — set off a slow and devastating ripple effect in the ranks of private sector unions.

Corporate execs started stressing less about the threat of a strike and acting more like the president against those on the picket lines. This furthered a slow decline in the ranks of private sector union membership around the country.

Now, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker may be trying to channel Reagan and affect a similar impact on state worker unions, which in recent years have grown in size and political strength nationwide.

Walker, just a teen during the Reagan presidency, is primed to press the kill switch to the power source of unions, collective bargaining. He could announce as early as today the layoffs of thousands of state workers unless his bill that would all but erase collective bargaining from the books is passed.

For Wisconsin workers already on their heels in a flagging economy, losing this showdown would push them into full retreat and into endangered species status.

Walker hopes to export his success to Ohio, Indiana, Florida and other states where Republican governors are pushing similar initiatives.

What about Washington? Could Wisconsin happen here?

No, not now, not with Democrats running the Legislature and occupying the governor’s mansion.

Well, at least not the same way.

While Republican-sponsored bills to eliminate collective bargaining aren’t getting a look, moderate Democrats are trying to rein in one group of unions they consider too powerful. And success with one group could lead to another.

Their target is Washington State Ferries workers who’ve historically negotiated better salaries and benefits than their peers in state employment. While ferry workers voluntarily gave up pay hikes in 2009, they burned up that goodwill last year when lawmakers learned how a handful of ferry workers abused their perks to haul in more than $100,000.

With negotiations on a new ferry worker contract under way, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, leaders of the House and Senate transportation committees, crafted bills severely limiting the issues that can be bargained.

Under House Bill 1511 and the similarly worded Senate bill, SB 5405, ferry workers can no longer negotiate on issues like overtime, holiday pay, comp time or accrual of sick leave and vacation time. Working conditions, such as the length of breaks between shifts, would be off the table, too.

The bills also call for abolishing the Marine Employees Commission that mediates labor disputes for the agency rather than the Public Employment Relations Commission used by all the other state worker unions.

“It is time to take on the difficult task of controlling labor costs,” Clibborn writes in the opening of her legislation.

This may not sound like Wisconsin, but it fits Washington’s passive-aggressive personality.

Clibborn and Haugen say they don’t want to get rid of the unions who represent 1,600 people but they do want to force major concessions from ferry workers in the current contract talks. In other words, it’s a threat.

Leaders of all public employee unions view the bills as an attack at the source of their power. At a rally inside the state Capitol on President’s Day, the union leaders called on the crowd to help defeat the measures.

Hundreds of workers showed up; many came to also show solidarity with Wisconsin laborers. They were a boisterous crowd and early on quieted down when told by security their chants were disturbing proceedings in the state Senate.

At that moment, ironically, senators were lauding the life, leadership and achievements of President Ronald Reagan.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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