Thousands of public employees held rallies throughout the state Wednesday to urge Washington lawmakers to approve new labor contracts for state workers.
During the demonstrations, which organizers said took place at 150 workplaces, employees stressed the importance of including money for the labor contracts in the state’s new two-year budget.
The negotiated contracts would award most Washington state workers cost-of-living raises of about 6 percent over the next two years, along with targeted salary increases for some positions that are hard to fill.
The contracts would cost an estimated $500 million during the state’s 2017-19 budget cycle.
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“It’s really calling attention to the need to support public services and fund state employees’ contracts,” said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union of Washington state workers. “If you want to have good services, you have to fund those contracts and stop the recruitment and retention crisis.”
Welch said state workers oppose the budget put out by the mostly Republican Senate majority, which would reject the negotiated contracts and instead award workers $500 raises each of the next two years. They instead want lawmakers to support a budget closer to the one proposed by House Democrats, which includes full funding for the labor contracts, he said.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, has said GOP Senate leaders didn’t include money for the state worker contracts in their budget plan partly out of frustration with how the contracts are negotiated. Unions negotiate the labor agreements with the governor’s budget office, leaving the Legislature out of the loop.
Lawmakers can approve or reject each of the contracts in their entirety, but they can’t renegotiate the contract details as they write their budget.
“I’m not saying that we don’t value our state employees,” Braun, the Senate’s lead budget writer, said last month. “We just think that’s a decision that should be done at the Legislature, in the legislative process.”
Locally, state worker demonstrations were held at the state Department of Labor & Industries headquarters building in Tumwater, the Department of Ecology building in Lacey, the Centennial Building in Tacoma, and the East Capitol Campus Plaza in Olympia. Workers participated during their breaks and returned to work afterward, Welch said.
At the event on the East Capitol Campus, about 200 employees gathered under a tent bearing signs with the phrase, “Public service matters.” One woman in a Godzilla suit wore a shirt over her costume that read, “Don’t stomp on state workers — fund the contracts.”
“By investing in us, what are you doing? You’re helping us provide the most vital services necessary to keep Washington running,” said Ginger Bernethy, a vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 443, which includes state workers from Thurston and Mason counties.
Later, Gov. Jay Inslee spoke about the importance of paying state workers fair salaries, saying approving the contracts “is a good management decision.”
“Managers want to have good people on the job, doing the job in a qualified manner,” said Inslee, who has been outspoken this year about the need to keep state workers from jumping to better-paying jobs in the private sector.
In December, the Democratic governor included about $730 million in his two-year budget proposal to pay for the union contracts, as well as to extend similar pay raises to non-unionized state employees.
Lawmakers are in the final week of their 105-day regular session. They are expected to require at least one 30-day special session to finish their work on the state budget.