Bargaining rights restored for some state workers

Claim: Settlement returns union-represented status to 122 employees at new state agency

bshannon@theolympian.comAugust 6, 2012 

About 122 workers in the state’s new Consolidated Technology Services agency are getting their collective bargaining rights restored on Sept. 1 after a recent settlement of claims brought by the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Agency director Rob St. John said the settlement agreement means that 122 of the 200 employees in exempt categories at CTS can go back to union-represented status, leaving about 80 employees exempt.

The agreement means job security for tech workers like Jeff Paulsen, a 28-year veteran of state government who belongs to the federation Local 443 and is on the union’s bargaining team.

“This is restoring us back into the status that we had before as state employees,” Paulsen said Friday, adding that he had been worried about his job because his exempt “at-will” status meant he could be fired “for any reason or no reason.”

“There was a lot of tension. Maybe it was just me, but I think people were more competitive with each other rather than collaborating – in subtle ways,” he said.

State lawmakers and the union leadership had differing reactions to the settlement. Federation spokesman Tim Welch said labor advocates are “ecstatic” about their reversal of fortune.

“As you know, across the country, bargaining rights for public employees are being eroded. To reverse that tide, even in a place like CTS, is really important. We also want to make the case that even though there may be downsizing and mergers, you don’t give up your rights,” Welch said.

In exchange for getting bargaining rights back for the reclassified workers, the federation dropped actions it had pending with the Public Employment Relations Commission and a state personnel appeals board. But for Paulsen, no change in duties or pay are expected.

“Nobody should be harmed by this from a gross pay perspective,” St. John said of the reversions taking effect Sept. 1. The agency still is reviewing the status of each worker and looking at rules governing pay for classified staffers, he said.

The end result is that the agency’s share of exempt workers is going to be comparable to other state agencies. Exempt workers will include CTS managers and supervisors and project managers, St. John said.

The change to exempt status – letting workers be fired or replaced by private sector workers – was meant to give the new agency flexibility in recruiting workers with just the right skills to handle its evolving tasks.

The reclassifications took place in 2011 through Gov. Chris Gregoire’s restructuring of five state agencies into three, effective Oct. 1. That merger took the data-services arm of the old Department of Information Services and put it into a new standalone agency, CTS, that is functioning like a data-services utility for other branches of government.

Democratic state Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia had worked on the merger bill but had balked at the collective bargaining changes that resulted in almost 200 of the new agency’s 270 workers being exempt from union protections.

Hunt said in an interview last week that language allowing the widespread reclassifications was a mistake added to the bill late in negotiations. “That’s what we feel it was – an error. It was an agreement gone awry,” Hunt said.

Hunt called the settlement “an agreeable compromise’’ that gives the agency flexibility but also preserves collective bargaining.

Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County was among those who wanted to open up the new agency, letting it hire from outside the agency to fill jobs as it found it necessary.

Alexander said that the original reform bill, Senate Bill 5931, never was intended to make a set number of jobs exempt but instead reclassified jobs on a case-by-case basis depending on the function. He said he is disappointed to see Democrats and the union undoing the reform because the decisions on who is exempt may not be made based on job functions.

Alexander saw the potential outsourcing of jobs at CTS as “one of the major privatization components” of the governor’s major restructuring proposal. “Now we’re getting down to a very small piece of the operation that will be privately operated,” he said.

Despite that, Alexander doesn’t plan another battle over collective bargaining at CTS in the next legislative session, calling it “done.”

Hunt said it was Gregoire who helped steer the parties toward the compromise. Hunt and Democratic Rep. Zack Hudgins of Tukwila met with Gregoire and her advisers during the spring special session after their bill to restore collective bargaining rights passed the House and then died in the Senate.

In that meeting, Hunt recalled: “She looked at us and said, ‘There is no way all those people should be exempt.’”

Hunt said it was at the governor’s behest that CTS and the federation then worked to settle their differences.

Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane was lead sponsor of the agency-merger bill. But in his absence late in the 2011 session, Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, stepped in and negotiated the final language that proved controversial.

Zarelli has since left the Legislature and Baumgartner is running for U.S. Senate. 360-753-1688 @BradShannon2

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