An initiative that would bolster training for long-term-care workers is the latest skirmish in a continuing power struggle between politicians and one of the state's most powerful unions.

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An initiative that would bolster training for long-term-care workers is the latest skirmish in an ongoing struggle between politicians and one of the state’s most powerful unions.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 775, which bankrolled Initiative 1163, is one of the largest, wealthiest and most aggressive political forces in the state. It targets politicians who don’t support their causes. And when the Legislature rejects its demands, the union goes to voters to make its case.

“I’ve felt they’ve always had the threat, and it feels like a threat, to be able to say if you don’t give this to us, we can go out for an initiative,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

That’s the case with I-1163.

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SEIU for years has pushed the idea of increased training for long-term-care workers. When the union was unable to get a bill out of the Legislature, it put an initiative on the ballot in 2008.

That measure was overwhelmingly approved by voters, but then delayed by lawmakers because of an unprecedented budget shortfall. When SEIU failed to get the training requirements reinstated by the Legislature this year, it went to the ballot again with I-1163.

All told, the union has spent four years and more than $2.6 million trying to increase basic-training hours from 34 to 75 for most new long-term-care workers, and require certification and more rigorous background checks.

The reason has a lot to do with increasing the union’s clout at the bargaining table, in addition to the need for training.

More training and required certification for long-term-care workers would boost their respectability in the Legislature and allow the union to bargain more effectively for higher wages and better benefits, SEIU argues.

“We absolutely think that providing adequate training and creating certification, professionalizing the industry, is a critical step toward lifting these workers out of poverty, getting them the respect they deserve and moving toward a living wage,” said Adam Glickman, a spokesman for the union.

“We’re not ashamed of saying that at all.”

Swift growth

SEIU has been pushing down this road for a decade and along the way morphed from a little-known union to a force that can’t be ignored.

The union started off in 2001 lobbying the Legislature for collective-bargaining rights for long-term-care workers who provide Medicaid clients in-home assistance with personal daily activities such as eating, personal hygiene, dressing and bathing. They’re also know as home-care workers.

When the Legislature did not approve collective bargaining, the union went to the ballot with Initiative 775 that same year. At the time, home-care workers were making barely more than minimum wage and didn’t have the right to unionize.

Voters approved I-775 overwhelmingly. About a year later, SEIU leaders negotiated a state contract calling for pay increases and an array of new state-subsidized benefits for their members, whose wages are paid with state and federal dollars.

The base pay for SEIU home-care workers has increased from $8.81 an hour in 2005, to $10.42 an hour in fiscal 2011. Membership has swelled from around 1,500 a decade ago to about 40,000 home-care and nursing-home workers today, according to the union.

As the local has grown, the pay of its leadership has increased as well. The salary of SEIU 775 President David Rolf increased 73 percent from 2005, to about $161,000 in 2010, federal records show. About $25,000 of that salary comes from the national union, the local says.

Rolf could not be reached for comment, but Glickman said SEIU hired an outside consultant several years ago to do a salary survey of similar-sized Seattle nonprofits and determined the union’s executive salaries needed to increase. Management staff have not gotten pay increases for the past two years, he said.

Judy Harris, a 68-year-old home-care worker from Port Orchard, said the union has improved her life.

“I first started as a paid caregiver in 2001 making $6.45 an hour without any insurance or benefits,” she said. Now workers start out at over $10 an hour, “which is still below living wages but it’s better than $6.45.”

They also have workers’ compensation insurance, and dental, vision and medical insurance. “We’ve accomplished an awful lot,” Harris said.

Those benefits, Glickman argues, came about because the union forced lawmakers to take notice of those caregivers. “Home-care workers now have the ability to hold politicians accountable,” he said.

Using its clout

The union typically supports Democrats and their causes. But in 2004, it went after former House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, a Seattle Democrat, saying she wasn’t strong enough in her support for its members. Union-backed groups spent more than $275,000 trying to defeat Sommers in the primary, with most of the money coming from SEIU.

Sommers won anyway, but some lawmakers say the union succeeded in sending a message: Opposing SEIU carries a political risk.

In 2010 the SEIU helped fund efforts to unseat two Democratic senators in Snohomish County. And former Democratic Sen. Ken Jacobsen, of Seattle, said he decided to retire last year in part because SEIU made it clear it would target him if he ran for re-election.


He was “a reliable vote against long-term-care workers,” said Glickman, who confirmed the union would have gone after Jacobsen had he run again.

In the past six years, the union has spent more than $5 million on various political causes and candidates, state records show.

The union shows its clout in other ways, too, bringing busloads of members clad in purple T-shirts to march around the Capitol and fill the hearing rooms during budget talks. Their leaders have access to the power brokers in the state House and Senate as well.

“I think they do an effective job of representing their employees. They work very hard at their job and it’s a big organization, so they are going to have some influence and impact,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

But he noted, “When I look at last session, just like everybody else they had some victories and suffered some losses.”

Additional spending

According to Glickman, if the union was as powerful as some people say, “We wouldn’t have had to do this initiative.”

Yet there aren’t many groups with the organization and money to put initiatives on the ballot. SEIU spent more than $1.1 million on signature gathering to qualify the measure.

The Governor’s Office projects that if I-1163 is approved, state costs will increase an additional $32 million over the next two years. That’s expected to be partially offset by about $14 million in federal matching dollars and new state fees.

That additional spending would come at a time when the state already faces a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall.

SEIU argues the state should increase taxes instead of making budget cuts. But if that’s not possible, union leaders say, lawmakers could find the money needed for the training.

The Legislature theoretically could muster a two-thirds vote to suspend I-1163. It did so in 2009 after I-1029 was approved. But that measure was suspended with the support of SEIU 775.

This time the union would oppose any effort to delay the additional training.

“I don’t think it’s out of the question,” Clibborn said, regarding an effort to suspend the initiative if voters approve it.

“I just don’t know where the votes are.”

The story includes material from The Seattle Times archives.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or

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