Union accuses county prosecutor of unfair labor practices

EVERETT — The union that represents most Snohomish County employees has filed a formal complaint accusing Prosecutor Mark Roe of unfair labor practices.

Roe said he was looking out for his employees and the public when he argued against a new union contract he fears would trigger layoffs.

Labor leaders, however, see things differently. They see emails Roe sent to the union president and elected officials as evidence that he’s failed to bargain in good faith. They filed a complaint Wednesday with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

“I don’t believe that I’m bargaining in bad faith because I’m not bargaining at all,” Roe said. “I am allowed to say what I think and to have opinions.”

The opinion is one Roe has shared often with other county officials: “When you’re in dire straits and facing layoffs, I don’t think it’s the time to give hundreds of people raises.”

The labor complaint pits the county’s elected prosecutor against the Washington State Council of City and County Employees, the AFSCME affiliate that represents more than 1,500 of the county’s 2,800 workers. He’s not alone in disappointing the union. A majority of County Council members this month also rejected the proposed new union contract, citing budget worries.

The union complaint demands that the employment commission order Roe to bargain in good faith, determine whether additional relief is warranted and make him pay attorneys fees for the case.

A preliminary ruling is likely to take weeks. If the case moves forward, a hearing or mediation session could follow. Both sides can appeal any decision.

The employment commission received 176 unfair labor practice complaints in 2014, Executive Director Mike Sellars said.

“The vast majority of the cases that are filed are withdrawn, typically as the result of settlement,” Sellars said.

Union President Chris Dugovich said Roe’s heart is in the right place, but he accused the county’s chief lawyer of overstepping his role in labor negotiations.

“He doesn’t have budgetary authority,” Dugovich said. “That’s up to the council and the exec.”

The union president could think of no recent examples of elected Snohomish County officials being the subject of a similar labor complaint.

The complaint against Roe focuses on a bargaining unit that represents about 70 attorneys who work in the criminal and family support divisions of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The sides tentatively agreed to a new contract in June.

The union contends Roe later refused to sign off on that agreement. The prosecutor said the negotiations with his office and the prosecutors union only touched on certain layoff provisions, and didn’t get into issues such as pay increases or medical benefits.

At the time, County Executive John Lovick’s office was in the process of negotiating a master contract for all union employees in the county. It included issues such as cost-of-living increases.

On July 30, Roe wrote to Dugovich to explain why he hadn’t signed off on the tentative agreement with the prosecutors union and why he doesn’t think raises are appropriate. The prosecutor’s office, like many other parts of county government, has been told to prepare for cuts of up to 6 percent in 2016.

“Some people will likely get laid off to reach that level of cut,” he wrote.

Roe said he’s always considered himself pro-labor, “But, being ‘labor,’ means first and foremost having a job.”

In his letter to Dugovich, Roe also said he is opposed to proceeding with the county’s $162 million courthouse project in the face of so much financial uncertainty.

Dugovich believes Roe is overreacting to the financial situation. He said it’s also in the union’s interest to avoid layoffs, citing the unpaid furloughs, wage freezes and restructured medical plans county employees have endured in the years since the recession started in 2008 to save jobs and money.

On the same day he wrote to Dugovich, Roe emailed all five county council members stating his opposition to raises if it means layoffs and slashed services.

“He lobbied the county council with that email,” Dugovich said. “This was really the most blatant thing we saw.”

On Aug. 12, a majority of the council took a controversial vote to turn down the tentative master union contract that Lovick’s staff had been negotiating with the union.

The three council members who supported the move said Lovick overstepped his authority under the county charter by offering raises that exceeded the limits council had placed on negotiations.

Lovick also called the council’s action “unjustified” and said it put the county “at risk for an almost certain unfair labor practice allegation by the union.”

Lovick has received strong union backing in his re-election campaign. His opponent in the November election is County Council Chairman Dave Somers, who led the effort to turn down the tentative union contract.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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