State lawmakers are arriving in Olympia today for the start of the legislative session, and the union for state workers is here too, ready to fight for their benefits, their salaries and, in some cases, their jobs.
About 75 members of the Washington Federation of State Employees met this morning and plan to come to the capitol building at noon in an effort to persuade lawmakers not to make deeper cuts to their benefits than those they’ve negotiated with Gov. Chris Gregoire and to protest some of the state service cuts Gregoire proposed in her budget.
“The Washington Federation of State Employees is really under the gun right now,” said Daniel D’Haem, who chairs the union’s internal organizing committee. “We are a target during a time like this for all the politicians who don’t like the labor movement in general.”
Tim Welch, a spokesman for the union, said the WFSE has two main objectives during the session: hold on to the salary and benefit cuts negotiated with Gregoire when she wrote her budget proposal and fight some of her proposed cuts to services such as Basic Health, programs for the disabled and juvenile rehabilitation.
He said that the Legislature would be able to save many of these programs by closing tax loopholes, though he acknowledged that Initiative 1053, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, could make this difficult.
Gregoire’s budget would eliminate Basic Health, a state subsidized insurance program, and the staff that administers it, cut state disability support programs and reduce the budget of the Department of Social and Health Services, among other things.
“There is an element of all the interested parties need to make a sacrifice and we’ve done that,” said D’Haem, referring to negotiations with the governor.
Her proposed budget would temporarily cut employee pay three percent, require state workers to pay 25 percent more of their health insurance costs and have employees contribute more to their pension funds. The union has agreed to these cutbacks.
“We’re afraid the legislature is going to take it further,” D’Haem said.
Alexander Park, a union member at the meeting, said he maintains the fire alarm system at Rainier School, a facility for developmentally disabled adults that the Department of Social and Health Services runs in Buckley, Washington. He said he had come to Olympia mainly because he was concerned about layoffs at the school.
“I have a lot of issues with the governor slashing and dashing us,” he said.
Lynette Powell, who works at Western State Hospital in Tacoma, said she had been caring for her 91-year-old mother recently and was worried about cuts to programs for the elderly and disabled in the state.
The one thing that union members said they know for certain at this point is that this will not be the last legislators see of them at the state capitol.
“Today really is kind of a modest turnout,” said Welch. “We’ll be down here in green shirts pretty much all of the 105 days.”