Thousands of union members from all over Washington poured onto the grounds of the state Capitol on Friday, calling on lawmakers to "put people first" by ending corporate tax breaks and painful cuts to public programs.
The protest was by far the largest of four days of boisterous demonstrations in Olympia over spending cuts legislators are considering in order to help close a looming $5 billion budget deficit for the next two-year cycle.
Buses began arriving at the Capitol hours before the noon rally, carrying musicians, ironworkers, firefighters and others concerned about the scarcity of jobs, the rising cost of college and the security of their pensions. The Washington State Patrol estimated 7,000 people gathered outside the main legislative building, while labor group leaders put the figure between 10,000 and 12,000.
Protesters said they hoped the demonstration would serve as a powerful reminder to lawmakers of who their decisions are affecting as they work to craft the state’s next two-year budget. The House plans to vote today on a budget plan that includes $4.4 billion in cuts, while the Senate will introduce its own proposal next week.
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, such as 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 perhaps 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 work force 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.
Many of the signs blanketing the crowd focused on the need to discontinue tax breaks for the financial services and other industries before resorting to more cuts. One read, “My community college teacher pays more tax than General Electric,” while another declared, “We the People v. We the Corporation.”
“We do not have a budget deficit,” Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, one of the rally’s main organizers, told the crowd. “We have a social services deficit, we have a jobs deficit, we have a revenue deficit, and we have a deficit of leadership.”
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a teacher from Tacoma’s Lincoln High School who attended the rally, said he was concerned that education budget cuts would lead to the closure of the Lincoln Center, an extended school day program to help students who are performing below grade level catch up.
With budget cuts looming, he said, it was hard for the school to know if it should work on recruiting incoming freshmen to the program or plan for next year.
“Everything is ambiguous right now,” he said. “Everything is up in the air.”
Dan Twohig, a 50-year-old licensed deck officer of the state ferry system, said corporations walk away with billions of taxpayer dollars every year while working families are forced to make do with less and less.
“It would beneficial on the state in general to stop attacking the workers; we’re not the ones with the money,” he said.
Gregoire so far has been lukewarm about the proposal to end tax breaks, and bills to halt some of them have failed to advance.
State law requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to create or increase taxes.
Among the lineup of about a dozen speakers Friday, the person who generated the most buzz and applause was Wisconsin state Sen. Spencer Coggs, one of 14 Democratic senators who attempted to block that state’s controversial new law eliminating most union rights for public employees.
Coggs recounted his experience fleeing to Illinois with his 13 colleagues in an ultimately failed attempt to prevent a vote on the legislation. He said it was labor groups across the country who “had our backs.”
Many in the crowd referred to recent events in Wisconsin as the worst-case scenario, one they were hoping to prevent.
“Wisconsin has woken this country up,” said Maureen Farr, a 65-year-old retired nurse from Olympia who was joined by her husband, Peter, a retired special education teacher.
The rally appeared to be the largest at the Capitol since 2003, when tens of thousands of Washington teachers gathered to protest cuts to education funding.
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.
Staff writers Brad Shannon and Katie Schmidt contributed to this report.