Democrats shelve worker privacy bill

OLYMPIA – The Washington State Labor Council acknowledged today one of its leaders sent an e-mail to lawmakers regarding a workers right bill that has prompted a criminal investigation and caused that legislation to be shelved.

“We regret the incident. It was a result of frustration with the legislature’s failure to protect workers rights in the workplace,” labor council president Rick Bender said in a prepared statement.

“We do not believe that any law has been violated and we have no additional comments until we know where this will go,” he said.

Bender and other council leaders were in the state Capitol today but declined to elaborate on the “incident.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, announced today in a joint statement that the bill would go no further.

“We are no longer considering action on House Bill 1528 and Senate Bill 5446, also known as the Worker Privacy Act,” the statement begins.

“Immediately upon becoming aware of an e-mail linking potential action on the bill to campaign contributions, bringing the bill forward was no longer an option.

“The e-mail raises serious legal and ethical questions.

“The matter has been referred to the Washington State Patrol for investigation.”

Earlier, the labor-backed bill giving new rights to workers was causing political heartburn for the governor and Democratic leaders who worried it sent an unfriendly message to Boeing at a time the aerospace giant is pondering its future plans in the state.

Although Gregoire, Chopp and Brown said they liked the concept of the bill, they were worried enough about potential fallout should it become law that they tried to negotiate wording changes that labor and business leaders might agree on.

“I’m very concerned about the bill,” Gregoire said last week. “The question for me right now is: Is there a risk if the state goes forward does Washington state lose jobs?”

Known alternately as the worker privacy act and employer gag bill, the proposed bill would have allowed workers to skip company meetings, without fear of punishment, when their bosses were talking about political or religious matters. Those matters include donating to charitable groups and, probably most important to labor, discussions about unions.

Today, under the law, bosses can hold mandatory meetings and dock employees’ pay for missing them. They can talk about elections, churches and the pros and cons of unions. It’s common practice at businesses where unions are trying to organize for employers to get employees together to make a case to stay non-union.

The bill wouldn’t have prevented bosses from communicating in any way but did give employees a right to skip the meetings and not face reprisal, said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. This is the third year in a row that organized labor had pushed for its passage.

“It’s a fairness issue,” said Sells, secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council. “When you go to work you take your hands and your brain. You don’t take your soul. The owner doesn’t own your soul.”

Kris Tefft, general counsel of the Association of Washington Businesses, a 6,600-member group, said the bill was a solution in search of a problem. There is no statewide or nationwide problem of employers forcing their workers to listen to political or religious discussions, he said.

What it does do is “take away the right of employers to talk with their workers in a routine and customary way,” he said.

Tefft said federal law pre-empts such state attempts and would surely prompt a legal fight if passed and signed into law.

Political leaders were concerned with the message passing the bill might send to Boeing officials contemplating whether a second production line for its Dreamliner aircraft is needed and, if so, whether to build it in Washington.

Boeing isn’t divulging any details.

“That’s above my pay grade,” said Boeing spokesman Bernard Choi. “Suffice it to say, this is important and we’re strongly against it.”

Boeing’s opposition was being wielded by Republicans and business leaders like a battering ram to try to disassemble the wall of Democratic support in both legislative chambers.

“You’ll run into that anytime you’re the largest employer in the state,” Choi said. “I don’t think we feel like we’re being used. This legislation is anti-business and not constitutional.”

While the company didn’t mind, a few legislators do. They were irritated at being portrayed as the bad guys should the bill pass and Boeing shift operations elsewhere.

“Boeing’s mantra is ‘Do it our way or we’re leaving,’ ” Sells said. “At what point do you draw a line and say, ‘Look this is an important value for the citizens in this state and we are not going to give up that value because of that kind of threat?’ “

Tefft said no one would know if it’s just a threat until it’s too late.

“You’re definitely putting a stake in the ground when you’re the only state in the country that is poking the employer community in the eye with both thumbs,” he said.

Inappropriate communication was sent to legislators. Swift action was taken to uphold the ethical standards of the institution and to notify proper law enforcement authorities.

At the request of the Washington State Patrol, the communication in question cannot be released because it is under investigation. Additionally, House leadership has been asked not to discuss this matter at this time.

Below is the timeline of events that happened yesterday regarding immediate cessation of any further communication or deliberation on HB 1528 up to the point of referring the matter to the authorities.

Timeline of activities

Tuesday, March 10

3:50 PM

Speaker is shown the e-mail in Senate Majority Leader’s office

3:55 PM

Speaker returns to office

Immediately seeks consultation with House Counsel on ethical and legal issues

Decision made to halt all consideration and communication on HB 1528

Canceled 4:00 meeting with stakeholder representatives

4:30 PM

Senior staff and House Counsel meet

Read e-mail and analyzed ethical and legal issues

Further staff consultation regarding appropriate authorities for reporting incident

6:45 PM

Speaker meets with Leadership

Senior staff and House Counsel brief leadership on incident and initial analysis

Decision to immediately halt all consideration and communication on HB 1528 confirmed

Decision made to consult with Senate and Governor about House Leadership decision to refer matter to appropriate investigative authority

Set meeting with Governor and Senate Majority Leader

9:00 PM

Speaker meets with Senate Majority Leader and Governor

Decision confirmed to immediately halt all consideration and communication on HB 1528 and SB 5446

Decision made to refer incident to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department

Joint agreement to suspend all contact with stakeholder representatives on this matter

9:30 PM

Counsel contacts investigative authority

Reported incident to Thurston County Sheriff Kimball

Sheriff Kimball refers matter to Washington State Patrol Chief Batiste

9:45 PM

Incident reported to Chief Batiste

Chief instructs legislative and executive branches to not distribute the e-mail because “the matter is under investigation”

10:00 PM

Counsel contacts members listed on e-mail distribution list

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