Pumped by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory last week, conservatives nationally are pushing to curb the power of public employee unions.
But Washington’s two leading candidates for governor say they’re not interested in picking a fight over government workers’ collective bargaining rights.
Labor groups mounted a recall campaign against Walker, a Republican, after he led efforts to eliminate union rights for most public workers. It was widely viewed as a referendum on collective bargaining — with Walker coming out on top. Also, in San Diego and San Jose, voters last week overwhelmingly approved curbing government pensions.
In Washington, Democrat Jay Inslee has positioned himself as the defender of collective bargaining, calling it a “fundamental right.” He and his supporters for governor have tried to paint Republican Rob McKenna as another Walker.
“The virus of Wisconsin is not going to enter the state of Washington,” Inslee has said.
McKenna, however, has repeatedly distanced himself from Walker and says state workers have nothing to fear from him if he becomes governor. Like Inslee, he’s also called collective bargaining a right.
“Collective bargaining isn’t the problem in our state,” McKenna said in an interview last week. “It’s the people doing the bargaining who have been the problem.”
McKenna, the state attorney general, says he would be a tougher negotiator than Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire. His agenda in negotiations includes tying annual “step” increases in pay to performance rather than merely longevity. He also wants to change the law to close some retirement plans to new workers.
Inslee’s campaign did not make him available for an interview last week despite repeated requests, and the former congressman has not proposed a plan for how he would approach state-employee compensation.
He opposes McKenna’s call to give state lawmakers more say in writing contracts. That change would take public unions a step back from the collective-bargaining rights they won a decade ago, which mostly moved fights over compensation from the Legislature to the bargaining table.
EFFECTS IN STATE?
Republicans say last week’s results in Wisconsin are a harbinger of things to come nationally and in Washington.
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state GOP, said Walker’s recall victory in particular energized his party here and “gives us hope that maybe we can do the same thing in November.”
Political pundits, however, say Walker’s victory will have no effect in this state.
“Nothing has changed as far as the Washington state governor’s race is concerned,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Sabato said the Wisconsin results should not be extrapolated to other states.
“Walker benefitted enormously from the fact that a fair slice of voters, including some (President) Obama supporters, did not support recall and did not think it was merited and felt it ought to be reserved for malfeasance in office,” he said.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, predicts McKenna’s opponents will stop comparing him to Walker because the recall election defused that angle of attack.
But the state’s largest labor group, the Washington State Labor Council, still thinks it’s a winning message, said Jeff Johnson, the group’s president.
The council in an online newsletter tells its members, “Don’t let McKenna Wisconsin-ize our state,” criticizing his positions on collective bargaining.
Critics also point to McKenna’s votes against some union contracts while on the King County Council and to comments he made in 2010 about unions.
He was quoted as saying unionization of government workers is “dangerous,” a view he attributed to former President Franklin Roosevelt.
McKenna said Thursday he was making the point that public unions, unlike those in the private sector, can try to pick their own bosses. “The problem arises from elected officials who owe their political positions to the people they’re bargaining with.”
He said on the County Council, he voted to approve hundreds of union contracts and voted against only a handful out of worries that cost-of-living increases were too large.
McKenna said unions and Inslee are “waging a campaign of fear” by portraying him as anti-union.
The candidates’ approach to government workers and collective bargaining will likely be an issue that comes up repeatedly.
Under state law, the governor is responsible for negotiating contracts with state worker unions. The Legislature gives final approval to contracts as part of the broader state budget, but can’t amend the deals.
“There’s no question the next governor needs to be a little tougher with the unions in terms of concessions,” Wilbur said. “Pension costs and insurance costs have grown to such a point that they create this huge unfunded liability. We have to deal with that unfunded liability and ... unions are going to have to come to the table and say ‘you’re right.’”
Records provided by the governor’s budget office show the proportion of the budget going to state worker salary and benefits has remained relatively constant over the past 12 years at roughly 23 percent. The cost of benefits has grown during that period while payroll has decreased as the state workforce has shrunk.
As of June 2010, the state had a $4.4 billion unfunded liability in its older closed pensions for state workers and teachers, according to the state actuary. That number will be updated this summer.
There are about 57,000 full-time equivalent positions in general state government, not including K-12 school or college employees. About three-quarters of the workers are represented by unions. They are the folks who guard prisoners, collect taxes, issue licenses and perform myriad other services.
During four years of budget cuts, state workers have taken unpaid furloughs and have seen their share of health-insurance costs rise. Unions say those concessions show the collective bargaining law is working.
The Legislature has eliminated automatic annual cost-of-living increases for retirees in the state’s oldest pension plans and scaled back incentives for early retirement for future workers.
Inslee has said the state’s fiscal challenges need to be balanced with the sacrifices state employees have already made.
Although he declined to be interviewed for this story, he did talk to the Washington Federation of State Employees union in an interview posted on the Internet.
He told the federation he sees the current setup of bargaining as “the right model.”
“It makes sure the governor has to stand up and be publicly accountable for what he or she has done in that negotiation,” he said.
Inslee’s record in Congress shows he voted this year for a pay freeze for federal workers while opposing an attempt last year to cancel workers’ step increases.
He hasn’t called for changes in state-employee benefits. He told the federation he wants to reduce the cost of health care overall by emphasizing preventative care, rather than arguing about the share paid by government and workers.
McKenna contends lawmakers should have more input into union contracts, such as the ability to offer amendments. He didn’t provide details on how that would work and said he was open to suggestions about the method.
“What’s happening now is that funding for public union contracts goes to the front of the line ahead of every other kind of spending because the Legislature has no direct role in the negotiations,” McKenna said.
On his campaign website, he calls for allowing lawmakers to amend or suspend contracts during a fiscal emergency.
One negotiator for the federation, Michael Weisman, said lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to second-guess the final product. The tradeoffs it takes to reach a contract deal are all tied together, with one side making concessions in return for the other side giving on a different issue.
“It’s not practical to have the Legislature or anybody who’s not at the table be involved in bargaining,” said Weisman, a Department of Health attorney who volunteered on the ground in Wisconsin to try to defeat Walker.
McKenna would push for other changes. He wants to to pay employees based on performance as well as seniority.
He said he would expand to all agencies performance-based bonuses that his office already uses, and would negotiate with unions to tie step increases to performance.
He also wants to make greater use of existing authority to seek bids from private companies to do work now performed by state workers. Unions would be able to compete for the work too, and he predicted they would win in most cases.
In some areas, such as state workers-compensation insurance, he sees a role for private firms.
McKenna wants to close pension-only retirement plans to future workers and put them in newer plans that are hybrids of pension and 401(k)-style accounts.
He also suggests employees’ share of health premiums could be increased from 15 percent to 25 percent — but he says his main goal for health benefits is to place employees in plans with medical savings accounts, lower premiums and higher deductibles. He favors placing school employees in a state health plan.Brad Shannon of The Olympian contributed to this report. jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/ politics @Jordan_Schrader