No donor is staking more on Democrats winning control of the state Legislature than the Service Employees International Union. SEIU wants higher taxes to fund state services, and a contract with raises for its members.
In the fight over control of the state Legislature, no donor has staked more on a Democratic victory this fall than the Service Employees International Union.
The influential union, pivotal in the push for Seattle’s $15 minimum wage and other efforts to aid low-wage workers, has poured more than $1 million into Democrats’ campaign committees.
That includes nearly $600,000 to help House Democrats retain or expand their slim majority — about a quarter of the cash donated to the caucus’ soft-money account, the Truman Fund. Another $300,000 has gone to the Senate Democrats’ Kennedy Fund, backing efforts to flip that chamber from Republican control. And the union has spent more than $160,000 on the campaigns of individual legislative candidates.
It’s another measure of clout for SEIU, which has turned the combined dues of thousands of lower-wage workers into a political powerhouse in state politics over the past 15 years.
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So what’s the union expecting in return for this year’s largesse?
David Rolf, president of SEIU 775, the union’s largest local representing more than 40,000 home health-care workers, says what’s at stake for his members “is whether some of the gains they’ve experienced over the last decade and a half are safe or at risk.”
For starters, lawmakers will vote next year on whether to fund a state contract for SEIU 775 home health-care workers that would raise starting pay to $15 an hour by 2019, up from the current $11.50.
As it hands out endorsements and campaign donations, SEIU has been asking legislative candidates to sign a pledge in support of that contract.
The deal represents major progress for the union from 2001, when voters first backed an SEIU-funded initiative allowing home-care workers to unionize.
Before that, those workers earned just over $7 an hour, with no benefits, for helping severely disabled and low-income elderly people with basic needs, such as cooking meals, getting dressed and going to the bathroom.
“It used to be considered sort of an invisible paraprofessional, poverty-stricken workforce,” Rolf said.
He notes that both Republican and Democratic legislators historically have backed home-care worker contracts, which are funded by Medicaid dollars.
But this fall, SEIU is betting heavily on Democrats — and especially the state House majority led by House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. In addition to SEIU 775, contributions have flowed from the union’s state council and locals representing nurses, university employees and others.
When it comes to donations to the House Democrats’ Truman Fund, only the state teachers union — which has given $420,000 — has come close to matching SEIU.
“They are flat out looking to buy a caucus,” said Kevin Carns, political director for House Republicans.
For the past several election cycles, Republicans have chipped away at House Democrats’ once-solid majority. By picking up just two seats this fall, the GOP could flip control of that chamber for the first time in 20 years.
If that happens, unions would lose a valuable backstop in Chopp’s majority caucus.
“It’s always been able to prevent anything really bad from happening when it comes to workers’ rights or worker benefits. At times they’ve been able to help move the ball forward,” Rolf said.
In the big picture, Rolf views the modern labor movement he’s helping to lead as a counter to decades of politics “corrupted by the power of big money to serve primarily corporate masters.”
Carns and other Republicans have a different take on SEIU’s motives.
They say SEIU has a bargain with Democrats: Help them win control of both legislative chambers and re-elect Gov. Jay Inslee — and they’ll secure a state income tax.
That charge has been making an appearance in political ads against Democratic legislative candidates in key swing districts.
Inslee has flatly denied support for an income tax, saying he’s always opposed it. Chopp, too, scoffs that an income tax is “simply not on the table anywhere in the Legislature.”
Chopp attributes SEIU support for Democrats to the party’s backing of guaranteed health care.
“That includes home care for the elderly and disabled in their home so they don’t have to go into a nursing home. We have a long history of that. The Republicans don’t,” he said.
Chopp said he supports SEIU 775’s contract and signed the union’s $15 pledge.
The state Democratic Party platform does call for a progressive state income tax, pointing out that Washington’s reliance on regressive sales taxes penalizes the state’s poorest residents.
“They can run and hide from it all they want … it’s part of their platform,” Carns said.
In 2010, SEIU and Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer bankrolled Initiative 1098, which would have created a state income tax on wealthier households — those earning $200,000 or more for individuals and $400,000 for couples, while lowering some business and property taxes. The measure was rejected by 64 percent of voters, losing in every county except San Juan.
Partly because of that history, Rolf says there’s no secret plan to push for an income tax if Democrats prevail in November. Still, the union makes no secret that it supports somehow raising taxes to provide more money for such needs as education and social services.
Rolf said SEIU is “intrigued” by a capital-gains tax, which would be levied on profits from investments like stocks or real estate but not regular wages. In 2014, Inslee proposed a capital-gains tax on wealthier households, but it failed to get a vote even in the Democratic-controlled state House.
“If there are revenue sources and the votes are there for them, then we ought to look at that,” Rolf said.
While mostly a Democratic ally, SEIU over the years has endorsed or donated to individual GOP legislators who supported its workers, including state Sen. Pam Roach and state Reps. J.T. Wilcox and Hans Zeiger. Luke Esser, a former state legislator and state Republican Party chairman, has worked for the union in recent years as a lobbyist.
Rolf has harsh words for the Legislature as a whole, saying Democrats and Republicans alike have been complicit in handing record tax breaks to Boeing while failing to secure adequate funding for public schools and other services.
“We’ve generally taken the view that working people need a watchdog for both political parties, not a lap dog for one political party,” Rolf said.
This story was reported in partnership with the public-radio Northwest News Network.