OLYMPIA — If the American labor movement is dead, nobody told Washington’s unions.
While workers struggle amid a gig economy and union membership remains near a nationwide low, state legislators in recent years have passed more than 20 new labor-backed laws. Those laws strengthen workplace protections, expand collective bargaining to new employees, strengthen unions’ ability to collect dues and hamper efforts by a conservative group to chip away at union membership.
This year, organized labor went well beyond workplace issues. Unions helped Democratic lawmakers muscle through an ambitious expansion of child-care subsidies and a new capital-gains tax.
Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee have long been generally allied with the labor movement, especially the public-sector unions, which are some of their top political donors. After election season, as lawmakers return to Olympia, they’re greeted by well-financed union lobbying efforts.
Labor’s power at the Capitol has grown dramatically in recent years. Since 2018, Democrats have flipped the state Senate — adding it to control of the House and governorship — and boosted their numbers in both chambers.
The push for new laws here combines with upticks in union organizing elsewhere, experts say, along with nationwide teacher strikes in recent years. Taken together, they represent a spark of hope for a long-battered movement.
Washington has remained a strong outpost for labor, ranking fifth in the nation last year for union membership, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Experts attribute that in part to the Service Employees International Union, which represents workers traditionally excluded from organized labor, like child-care and home health-care workers.
“I think nationally and in Washington state it’s actually a really exciting time for … the American labor movement,” said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington. “The most exciting time since, I think, since the beginning of decline of union density and worker power in the 1970s,” added Grumbach, who specializes in labor politics.
But the power wielded by largely public-sector unions has rekindled longstanding complaints from conservatives who say labor has outsized influence in Olympia.
“I’m not in any way opposed to unions,” said Senate Republican leader John Braun, R-Centralia. “I just think, in particular in our state, you have the public-sector unions who have outsized influence.”
Braun has joined Democrats to vote for a handful of labor-backed bills in recent years. But he argues public-sector unions have a vested interest in the state both raising taxes and spending more, resulting in what he called a “harmful” imbalance.
And after his own experience last year, Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat from Issaquah, is also speaking out.
In a rare intraparty challenge, a coalition of labor and progressive organizations spent heavily to unseat Mullet, one of a handful of remaining Senate moderates. That big-dollar effort fell just barely short — Mullet prevailed by fewer than 60 votes after a recount.
He and another Democratic senator have called it a shot across the bow for those who don’t fall in line.
“It makes people very scared to come out against their policies,” said Mullet.
Union leaders and labor advocates push back on the notion that they have outsized power. They point out that many union members are women and people of color, who haven’t traditionally enjoyed significant clout in Olympia.
In a statement, Larry Brown, president of the Washington State Labor Council, attributed the unions’ power to putting “boots on the ground” during election season and as advocates at the Capitol.
And, “To be clear, most of the pro-worker policies we support benefit all workers, not just union members,” Brown added.
A string of victories
In 2018, Democratic lawmakers walked into the Capitol building fresh off a special election victory that gave them a new, one-vote Senate majority.
By the end of that 60-day legislative session, the Labor Council published a glowing legislative wrap-up headlined: “Proof that every vote counts.”
It touted new laws previously bottled up under divided government: legislation intended to provide equal pay for women, advance voting rights, and address prevailing wages and bargaining rights.
Another law that passed restructured how the state will soon contract with roughly 46,000 home health-care workers.
The proposal — which drew outcry from nearly all Republicans — shifted what had been individual contracts with each worker to a private company.
Negotiations between that new company and SEIU 775 could ultimately remove a provision allowing workers to opt-out of paying union dues. That opt-out is a legacy of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Harris v. Quinn.
No decision has been made whether to negotiate to remove the opt-out provision, said Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer of SEIU 775.
But, “It is almost always the case in Washington state that employees at a private company where you’re represented by a union, have to pay either dues or a fee to that union,” he said.
Democrats also tweaked the law on school salaries, paving the way for teachers to return to the bargaining table with local districts. That, along with a final chunk of funding for a court-ordered K-12 funding plan, led local teacher unions across Washington to score double-digit pay increases.
Workplace protections have been strengthened too, including a 2019 bill sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, to mandate meal and rest breaks for some health-care workers.
The pandemic has shown the worth of such a law, he said, “seeing how we’re burning so many front-line workers out.”
Unions also have the dollars to flex their muscles in lobbying and fundraising.
Four of the 10 highest-spending lobbying entities last year were unions, according to a Public Disclosure Commission report. They included SEIU 775, Washington Education Association, Washington Federation of State Employees and Public School Employees of Washington.
Meanwhile, five of the top 10 independent-expenditure committees — which spend to support or oppose candidates — were sponsored or funded by unions, according to the report.
Last year, unions and other progressive organizations turned their fire on Mullet, who represents King County’s 5th Legislative District.
They backed Ingrid Anderson, herself a union member, and spent more than $1.8 million — with SEIU as a major funder — to unseat Mullet.
Mullet cited some positions that he said got him crossways with labor, including his opposition to a capital-gains tax. He also opposed the long-term care benefits law passed in 2019. It established a new payroll tax to fund a maximum $36,500 benefit for qualifying state residents to pay for home health care.
SEIU 775, which also represents employees in nursing and group homes, supported it. The union later funded an unsuccessful campaign at the ballot box to allow the revenues to be invested into stocks.
Mullet described the law as a tax creating a dedicated pool of money that benefits the services performed by the union’s workers: “I mean, it’s clear that this is good for their members.”
During the Senate debate, he proposed an amendment to provide a slimmer benefit for people who spent less time paying into the system. Mullet described the proposal — which Democrats rejected — as a way to begin a new program with fiscal restraint.
In conversations with SEIU, Mullet said, they made it clear “that they didn’t appreciate my involvement in the legislation.”
“I think their frustration was that I wasn’t quietly voting no,” he said. “I was actively trying to change the bill in a way that I thought would make it less damaging.”
Glickman disputes the characterization that SEIU’s effort against Mullet was designed to send a signal to others.
“It wasn’t like we were trying to make some broader point,” Glickman said. “We just decided that Sen. Mullet was not representing our members’ interests.”
Glickman said the long-term care bill — which was supported by groups like AARP — will fill an increasing need for care that has generally been underfunded by the state.
“A factor of outsized power”
The power of labor is shown not just in what gets done, but also in what doesn’t move forward.
Braun, the Senate Republican leader, pointed to Washington’s slow reopening of some K-12 schools this year amid the pandemic.
He and Mullet introduced legislation in January to create public-health metrics that might allow schools to open more quickly — opposed by the WEA — that went nowhere.
By spring, Inslee grew publicly exasperated amid bargaining between local unions and a handful of districts over returning to school.
The governor in March used his emergency powers to order districts to provide some in-person instruction time.
“It’s just nuts, and that is entirely a factor of outsized power” of the union, said Braun. “And here we have a three-term governor barely making way against this enormously powerful public-sector union.”
Even a strong labor supporter like Riccelli acknowledged unions can oppose bills that lawmakers may consider good public policy.
That includes his bill last year to recognize out-of-state nursing licenses, a move which could also help military spouses get jobs and help address a worker shortage. Unions opposed the legislation, which stalled.
“I think that there’s times when … some policy bills are challenging because of the influence they have,” Riccelli said.
Reopening state contracts
Even when Republicans controlled the Senate, state employee unions have gotten regular cost-of-living raises.
Some workers — from Washington State Patrol troopers to psychiatric nurses — got bigger pay bumps to help fill open jobs.
Last spring, unions held talks with the Inslee administration, which sought to save money amid COVID-19 after early projections showed a dire budget shortfall.
A deal was struck: most workers would keep an already scheduled pay raise.
Meanwhile, the state would save money by temporarily instituting unpaid furlough days. The arrangement allowed workers to apply for unemployment and pandemic assistance.
The Washington Federation of State Employees at the time said the deal meant eligible workers “are likely to enjoy a net increase in their pay.”
In preparation for austere times, unions last year also agreed to forgo cost-of-living raises in the usual contracts included in the new state budget amid the uncertainty.
But by April, with tax collections surging, a windfall in federal COVID-19 aid and a new capital-gains tax, lawmakers passed a state budget with big spending increases.
Now, state worker unions are looking to reopen those contracts.
With the recovery, “it’s absolutely impossible to defend not giving our employees a raise for two years,” said David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, which negotiates with the unions.
Braun said he appreciated the caution last year by both Inslee and the unions.
But, “I can guarantee you they will all reopen this summer,” he said. “And they’ll do very well in the renegotiation of those contracts.”
This story was reported in conjunction with Austin Jenkins of Northwest News Network, a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington and Oregon.