Both the union and the company noted the irony of the labor dispute, which is happening at an office that serves members of other local unions.
Union workers go on strike around Seattle from time to time. But what happens when office administrators who serve union workers go on strike?
On Wednesday, a local union whose members handle pension and health-care benefits for about 250,000 unionized workers in the Puget Sound region and across the West announced it was fed up with negotiations with its members’ employer and went on strike.
Unless you’re a union member, you’ve probably never heard of the parties involved. The company is Mercer Island-based Welfare & Pension Administration Service (WPAS) and its employees are represented by the Seattle-based Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 8.
About 100 unionized WPAS office staffers pay out benefit claims for workers in at least 80 other unions (primarily in the labor trades), determine who is eligible for benefits, cut pension checks and handle other administrative details.
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But the WPAS employees have been working without a contract since February, and have failed to reach a deal despite 11 months of negotiations and more than a dozen bargaining sessions. They walked off the job Wednesday and said they have no immediate plans to return to work.
Amanda Montoya, lead negotiator for the picketing employees, said the strike would bring their work to a standstill, delaying benefits to the other union workers served by the company.
“Claims won’t be paid, people won’t be able to get their prescriptions potentially,” Montoya said.
But WPAS President Dennis Kirkpatrick said some of the company’s employees have crossed the picket line, and it has hired temps to pick up some of the slack. It also has outpost offices stretching from California to Alaska that can chip in.
“At this point we’ve got a substantial staff here and we think we should be able to continue to serve our clients for a while,” Kirkpatrick said.
Montoya said she is keenly aware that the striking WPAS workers could harm other union members across the region. But she said local labor groups stand by them.
“I think there’s solidarity there. We don’t take this action lightly,” Montoya said.
She said sticking points with the company include maintaining seniority rights, capping medical costs for workers and re-establishing their retirement benefits after losing their pensions last year.
Kirkpatrick noted the company has offered to raise pay 12.5 percent over four years and contribute to employees’ 401(k) and medical plans. The average worker there makes $27 an hour, he said.
Kirkpatrick said the company wants its employees who distribute benefit checks to have a good retirement, too. He said it’s a “little awkward” for a company that serves union workers to have a labor dispute itself.
“We’re very aware of the irony, and it’s why we frequently don’t have labor disputes,” he said. The last strike in the company’s 64-year history was 29 years ago, according to the union.