Editorials

How do 3% raises for state workers sound?

Washington state workers rally to encouraged state legislators to solve the budget stalemate and avoid a partial government shutdown during a rally outside Western State Hospital in Lakewood in Thursday, June 22, 2017.
Washington state workers rally to encouraged state legislators to solve the budget stalemate and avoid a partial government shutdown during a rally outside Western State Hospital in Lakewood in Thursday, June 22, 2017. toverman@theolympian.com

This is a year of labor discontent and worker walkouts around the U.S. But some contract negotiations are being done in a peaceful, orderly way.

The best case in point is the ongoing negotiation by Washington state government workers, whose largest union just agreed to 6 percent raises spread over two years in the state budget cycle that begins July 1, 2019.

The Washington Federation of State Employees announced that tentative agreement with Gov. Jay Inslee’s labor negotiators on Thursday (Sept. 14), affecting an estimated 32,327 union members.

The deal includes additional adjustments for some workers in high-cost Puget Sound cities of 5 percent more. WFSE says about 10,600 workers in King County could be eligible if they don’t already get a 5 percent geographic pay adjustment.

The WFSE agreement affects 32,327 of its members, union executive director Greg Devereux said. But the deal is also a bellwether for two dozen other unions that also bargain for health and pay benefits with the state. These include locals representing state agency workers and higher education staff.

But the WFSE agreement still needs to be ratified by the union’s more than 35,000 members who are affected by the potential deal. That online voting begins Monday, Sept. 17, and continues through month’s end.

It’s too early to say if the pay package is fair and affordable, but it reflects an anticipated increase in inflation already under way.

The governor’s negotiators and budget office are unable to comment on the agreement or share details until it is ratified and delivered to the Office of Financial Management.

That ratification must happen in time to meet an Oct. 1 deadline for inclusion in Inslee’s 2019-21 budget proposal, which typically is released during the week before Christmas.

This state-worker agreement is in sharp contrast to the ongoing fights over teacher pay in this state and in six states that saw strikes in the spring.

Walkouts have idled local schools for more than a week in Tumwater, Tacoma and a few other communities. This strife echoes strike actions in states like Oklahoma earlier this year.

But Washington’s school strikes stem in part from K-12 funding reform approved by our Legislature in 2017, which then agreed this year to send an extra $1 billion to the state’s 295 school districts for compensation and class size adjustments this fall.

The extra state money helped end a decade-long legal fight over the K-12 funding system, which the state Supreme Court said in 2012 was unconstitutional.

The flaw in the old funding system was that Washington relied on local voter-approved levies to subsidize as much as a third of pay and operations costs in some districts, which legally was a state obligation.

This is the last year local levy cash can be used to augment salaries. This fact and the $1 billion – the latest of more than $7 billion pledged over four years to reform the funding system – has fueled a drive by teacher unions to grab what they believe is a fair share of the outlays.

Several school districts and unions set a high bar early on for others to follow by agreeing to double-digit pay hikes, according to the Washington Education Association’s online tracking site for members’ local agreements.

Top pay in some districts like Edmonds is around $114,000, well above many other districts.

In a bid to end the strike, Tumwater negotiators have offered to dip into reserves for some $4 million to cover an offer to raise pay by double-digits and class-size changes.

But teachers have asked for more and may defy a court order to return to work Friday. The Tumwater school district said schools will open on Sept. 14.

The Tacoma schools strike may be more intractable.

In contrast, the statewide system for bargaining looks like a serene and rational approach to setting pay and is worth copying.

The pay package for state workers agreed to by Inslee’s labor team and WFSE negotiators still needs to go to the governor’s Office of Financial Management by Oct. 1 for consideration.

The Democratic governor’s budget experts must determine if the proposal is feasible to pay for before including it in their budget proposal for fiscal years 2019-21.

If Inslee puts it in, the Legislature’s two houses must approve the worker contracts in a budget next year. But Inslee’s budget office could reject the package despite ratification by workers – if the November revenue forecast shows the spending is not sustainable.

Such a finding has happened only once since collective bargaining was approved by the Legislature in 2002.

Some critics of bargaining say the negotiations should be more open to the public. We agree in part – that some details need to be available for public review.

It would help the public to see the total taxpayer cost of the WFSE agreement, the earlier proposals and counter-proposals well before the request goes into a state budget.

At this point it appears the state will continue to cover 85 percent of health-care premium costs for state workers. We don’t know what that costs or what a health-care benefit in negotiation statewide for K-12 workers could cost.

Everyone should.

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