CONDON THE OLYMPIAN
OLYMPIA, WA - 4/10/02 -- A lobbyist for the
state's building industry has filed a ballot referendum asking
voters to throw out the state employee collective bargaining
rights approved last month by the Legislature.
A day after Gov. Gary Locke signed the legislation into law,
Elliot Swaney, political director for the Building Industry
Association of Washington, filed the necessary paperwork for the
referendum with the Secretary of State's Office.
If the group gathers the needed signatures, the measure will
appear as Referendum 52 on the November ballot.
"We think this issue should go to the voters, to decide if
it's good government or bad government," said Tom Huff, a
former Republican state legislator from Gig Harbor who has agreed
to serve as spokesman for the campaign.
Swaney could not be reached for comment.
Huff said other business lobbying groups are close to joining
the coalition, but he would not reveal which ones.
"It's in its embryonic stages right now," he said.
Collective bargaining was a top priority for Democrats who had
full control of the Legislature this session for the first time in
eight years. Under the new system, which takes effect in 2004, the
governor will appoint a team to negotiate state worker salary and
benefits with officials from the unions that represent them.
The legislation includes changes to the state's civil service
system, and allows for private contracting of some state services.
Under state law, referendums can repeal certain parts of
legislation, according to Shawn Merchant, a state elections
official. That way, voters could repeal collective bargaining
without striking the other two provisions, which are generally
popular with business groups.
"Obviously it would be devastating and would take a meat
ax to that bill," said Tim Welch, spokesman for the
Washington Federation of State Employees, one of several labor
groups that had sought collective bargaining for more than a
"A lot of people have worked on it for so many years. This
is just an extreme disappointment," said Rep. Sandra Romero,
D-Olympia, the bill's prime sponsor. Romero said she would take an
active role in any campaign to defeat the referendum.
Locke also spoke strongly against the effort.
"Civil service reform, contracting out and collective
bargaining as a package are absolutely essential to making
government more efficient," Locke said.
Huff, a former House Appropriations Committee chairman, said he
signed on because he's concerned about the shift in power away
from the Legislature to the governor's office that comes with
collective bargaining. Under the old law, the Legislature set
state employee compensation rates, and was not required to
negotiate with worker groups.
"We're talking about the allocation of billions of dollars
taken out of the hands of the body that is elected to make the
spending decisions," Huff said.
Huff's comments echoed those of many Republican lawmakers who
made numerous attempts to thwart the legislation during the
The deadline for collecting the 98,867 signatures needed to get
a referendum on the ballot is June 13.
"We're going to have to move quick," Huff said,
adding that the likely members of the coalition are willing to
commit significant financial resources to the signature-gathering
The effort could flare up longtime rivalries between big
business and big labor in the state. Rick Bender, executive
director of the Washington State Labor Council, said his group
would throw its weight behind efforts to uphold collective
"These guys don't believe that workers should have the
right to bargain for their wages and benefits," Bender said.
"We'll take them on strong."
Patrick Condon covers state government for The Olympian. He can
be reached at 360-753-1688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web:
- Building Industry Association of Washington - www.biaw.com
- Washington State Legislature - www.leg.wa.gov
- Gov. Gary Locke - www.governor.wa.gov