Today's labor rally on the state Capitol steps drew one of the largest crowds in nearly a decade to the Capitol. The 7,000 people eclipsed a tea-party styled event on tax-filing in 2009 and large right-to-life marches in recent years that drew as many as 5,000 people.
This one appeared to be the largest since the state teachers union brought more than 20,000 people to the Capitol Campus in 2003.
Washington State Patrol Lt. Mark Arras, a veteran of protests at the Capitol, said the crowd was 7,000 strong. He also called that a generous estimate. But Kathy Cummings, spokeswoman for the Washington State Labor Council, said the council’s president was told by troopers the event drew 10,000 to 12,000 people, a claim Arras disputed.
Ironworker Henry Daquip of Tumwater stood on the Capitol steps with other members of the Ironworkers Local 86 of Seattle, which brought about 50 members.
"We're here to support the working families – showing solidarity. We're also here to support collective bargaining. We're really worried about the future as construction workers," Daquip said. The solution? He said lawmakers should get projects moving like the Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle that could put idled construction workers back to work.
Laurie Meeker, president of The Evergreen State College's faculty union posed for a picture with a group of about 50 people, many wearing American Federation of Teachers T-shirts, near the Capitol steps. Meeker said a top, obvious issue for the group is higher education funding, which is cut by about $482 million in the House Democrats' budget proposal for 2011-13.
Gov. Chris Gregoire negotiated contracts with many state unions to cut pay and hours worked by 3 percent for about 90 percent of the state workforce on July 1, and the House Democrats' budget assumes that $177 million in general fund savings.
But Evergreen's three-year faculty contract runs out in August and negotiations have not begun on pay, Meeker said. "Our wages are some of the lowest in the country. As professors at Evergreen, we're 517 out of 574 in a study done nationally," Meeker said.
The budget plan was amended slightly in the House today. Known as House Bill 1087, it goes to a vote on the House floor on Saturday.
The chief architect of that plan was Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and he welcomed the protests – which decry cuts to healthcare for the poor and to schools.
"We're trying to do a budget that deals with a horrific, externally created problem in the most-fair way possible. I know there are a lot of people upset with this budget. There is nothing I can do with that," Hunter said. "Our job is to try and do the best job we can, and I think we have done a reasonable job of it."
Hunter said his goal "has been to spend as much money on services to people as possible and as little money on bureaucracy as I could."
He said tax revenue increases are not possible with the two-thirds majority vote requirement to raise taxes or close tax exemptions. But Democratic Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater said a "modest" proposal is in the works next week to tie the closure of some exemptions to specific programs.
Even if revenues are approved they would needed to go to the ballot, and Hunter said he has no choice but to do a budget that works with financial reality.
The Capitol has hosted four boisterous rallies this week, including activists who stayed overnight in the legislative Rotunda Wednesday and Thursday nights. I talked to one legislative staffer who saw a protester rolling up his bedding at 7:30 a.m. today, and the camper asked her for directions to a coffee stand – then asked her for money.
But there did not appear to be any incidents, like Thursday's arrest of 17 protesters outside Gov. Chris Gregoire's office lobby. As a precaution, the governor's staff locked the lobby doors and eight patrol troopers stood solemnly outside the door this afternoon when the rally participants began filing into the building.
The locked doors and guards were just in case, State Patrol spokesman Dan Coon said.
At about the same time, the Rotunda filled with labor activists and blaring bagpipes, security at the House and Senate chambers was tightened. Doors to the public galleries overlooking the House chambers were locked.
House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker said one of the hardest decisions she's made was to have the doors locked.
But the doors came open after the rally left the Rotunda and before the House speaker pro-tem gaveled a session to order around 2:30. Budget amendments were quickly adopted, paving the way for Saturday's vote.