Labor leaders say the state's poorest workers finally have a voice, but lawmakers, uneasy about budget control, balked at letting foster-care, day-care and adult-family-home workers unionize.

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OLYMPIA — After years of success at passing laws that allowed tens of thousands of low-wage, service-sector workers to unionize, labor groups hit a wall — or at least a speed bump — this year in the Legislature.

Democratic leaders in the Senate last week pulled the plug on a bill that would have extended collective-bargaining rights to some 12,000 day-care-center workers. Lawmakers also shot down bills that would have allowed many of the state’s foster parents and about 4,000 adult-family-home workers to unionize.

“There seems to be a general uneasiness among many people about the concept of collective bargaining in these nontraditional areas,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the Senate Labor, Commerce, Research and Development Committee.

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In the past six years, unions have added more than 65,000 members by pushing through new collective-bargaining laws.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has led the way. Under the new laws, the SEIU has organized nearly 40,000 state-paid home-health-care and child-care workers, helping it become the state’s largest union. The Washington Federation of State Employees also added thousands of members by winning new bargaining rights.

The rapid growth — adding millions of dollars in additional dues — has vastly expanded the unions’ political clout. That, in turn, has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in increased wages and benefits for the newly unionized workers.

“You have to hand it to the unions,” said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. “They’re giving people a voice that they never had before.”

Kim Cook, president of SEIU Local 925, said her union’s effort this year to win collective-bargaining rights for day-care workers fell victim to an aggressive lobbying effort by opponents. Though the YMCA and large child-care chains, such as KinderCare, were exempt from the unionizing bill, they worked hard to kill it.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown agreed that was a major factor. But she said there is also a growing concern that lawmakers have been giving up too much control over key budget and policy decisions.

“There’s definitely a tension over how much is being turned over to the collective-bargaining process,” said Brown, D-Spokane.

Under the bargaining laws approved in recent years, the unions negotiate directly with the governor over wages and benefits or subsidy rates. Lawmakers have no say over the details; they can only approve or reject the contracts.

“I’m very much concerned that we’re going much too far,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. “I think everybody should slow down and take a look at what it means for the state.”

Meanwhile, a few Democrats are pushing back at what they see as a power grab by unions like the SEIU.

“People are finally starting to give this stuff a hard look,” said Sen. Ken Jacobsen, a Seattle Democrat and outspoken critic of SEIU tactics in Olympia.

The SEIU has not been shy about attacking Democrats who don’t back the union’s causes, and supporting Republicans who do. And Jacobsen contends they are doing it with taxpayer-funded dues.

“We’re going to end up having just an SEIU caucus,” Jacobsen said. “The only legislators down here will be the ones who agree with SEIU.”

But many Democrats, union leaders and human-service advocates argue the union proliferation has been a good thing.

“This is really just about the poorest kids and workers in this state figuring out a way to come together and have a voice down here,” Cook said. “It’s helped them incredibly.”

Lonnie Johns-Brown, a longtime human-services lobbyist, said the move toward unions might not be happening if the state had done a better job at providing adequate funding for those who care for the frail, elderly and disabled.

Johns-Brown said SEIU’s home-care workers are a classic example. Since they unionized, home-care workers have won health-care benefits and seen their wages grow nearly 40 percent, to $10 an hour.

“It’s clear that when you look at the home-care workers, it has forced the Legislature and the governor to attend to issues that in the past were pretty easy for them to brush off,” she said.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882

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