Referendum filed to sink collective bargaining
Building lobbyist wants to overturn state labor law


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.

Democrat priority

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 decade.

"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 session.

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 effort.

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 bargaining.

"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


On the Web:

- Building Industry Association of Washington -

- Washington State Legislature -

- Gov. Gary Locke -

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