Labor vows political backlash

By Ralph Thomas
Seattle Times Olympia bureau

6/13/03


OLYMPIA This year's legislative session was a bonanza for business and a near bust for labor unions. And the repercussions are bound to be felt into next year's session and the 2004 election.

Labor leaders are promising to punish Democratic allies who they say went too far in pushing business' agenda, or didn't go far enough to block it.

Democratic leaders are looking for ways heal the schism.

No one has more mending to do than Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, who repeatedly sided with Republicans and business this year.

Locke has not announced whether he will seek a third term. But if he does, he is in "serious trouble" of losing labor's support, said Washington State Labor Council President Rick Bender.

The Washington Education Association, the teachers union, has already announced it won't support a Locke re-election bid.

"Time does sometime heal some wounds," Bender said. "But there's no question in my mind, some people are going to pay a price in 2004."

To help keep memories fresh, Bender's organization sent out a list yesterday highlighting the Democrats who voted for an unemployment-insurance bill opposed by labor.

Business lobbyists, meanwhile, hope they can keep up the momentum and score even more victories next year. And Republican leaders are eager to prey on the weakened relationship between the Democrats and labor.

"If Gary Locke is the Democrats' nominee for governor, the most passionate members of labor are either going to be sitting on their hands or lukewarm in their support," said state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "I would hate it if my coalition was as shredded as theirs is."



The business rout was helped by a poor economy that made lawmakers wary of accusations they weren't doing enough to ignite the economy and create jobs. Boeing helped by putting Washington in a bidding war with other states that want to be home to a new airplane-assembly plant.

The Republican-led Senate made helping business its top priority and ensured that nothing business opposed too strongly would get through the chamber.

But the long list of business wins could not have happened without Locke, a two-term Democrat. As he was deciding whether to try for re-election, he stuck to an ardently pro-business agenda.

All the proof you needed that this was business' year in Olympia could be seen within minutes after the final gavel fell Wednesday night.

In the Senate chambers, Boeing's chief lobbyist joined Republican leaders for a victory-lap news conference. Across the street, a pack of jubilant business lobbyists showed up at Locke's news briefing to thank him.

Meanwhile, Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp, who fought vigorously to slow the business onslaught, had already made his getaway from Olympia.

And there was no sign of the dozens of labor lobbyists and activists who had staged hunger strikes and countless rallies during the session's final days.

The list of business victories is impressive:

A sweeping overhaul of the state's unemployment-insurance system that will save businesses $100 million a year and cut benefits for tens of thousands of unemployed workers.

Massive tax breaks worth more than $3 billion over 20 years aimed at persuading Boeing to pick Washington as the production site for its proposed 7E7 jetliner.

A new two-year state budget that plugs a projected $2.65 billion shortfall without any significant tax increases. Instead, lawmakers relied almost entirely on spending cuts and freezes, such as denying pay raises for most teachers and all state employees.

A long-sought transportation-improvement package that will pump $4.1 billion into projects statewide in the next 10 years. The plan includes a 5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase, the first one in 13 years.

With the exception of the transportation package, which labor supported, the business victories came at the expense of unions and their members.

"I've been at this for over 15 years and don't recall as broad and comprehensive an approach to help the economy and help business," said Philip Bussey, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group.

Locke and lawmakers made headway on nearly all of the top recommendations from the state's Competitiveness Council, created by the governor in 2001 to suggest ways to improve the business climate.

"Clearly this was a watershed year," said Dick Davis, president of the business-backed Washington Research Council. "I've been watching this stuff since 1986, and I would have to say this is one of the best sessions in terms of the Legislature recognizing the problems we have in this state with the business climate and acting to address them."

But what made it one of the best pro-business sessions also made it one of the worst for traditional Democratic Party interest groups. Labor, including teachers and state workers, has a long list of things to be unhappy about. So do social-service advocates stung by budget cuts.

"There is going to be a lingering effect on the votes that were cast in this session," said state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt.

He said Democratic lawmakers now tagged as anti-labor need to make amends in the 2004 legislative session.

"These legislators should clearly understand that I think there is some political peril in all of this," Berendt said. "They need to go home, regroup and figure out what they're going to do for the rest of their constituents by the next legislative session to rebuild some confidence."

Of particular concern to Democrats is the split within the labor ranks. Boeing's unions supported the unemployment-insurance bill as part of the package to win the 7E7 plant, but the rest of labor vigorously opposed it.

"We all wanted to save Boeing, but none of us knew how high that price would be," Berendt said.

While labor might pull back some support for Democrats in the next election, the rift might not be as deep as Republicans hope.

The Boeing Machinists union, perhaps the state's most powerful union and one of the most generous Democratic donors, will consider where politicians stood on the unemployment issue when it decides whom to support in next year's elections, said political director Linda Lanham.

But the union is not ready to cozy up to Republicans too much.

On Wednesday night, Republicans had hoped to get Lanham to attend their post-session news conference. But she declined because Democrats weren't going to be there and "they support our issues, generally, more than Republicans."

There will be new things to fight over next session.

Business lobbyists say they may push for a major rewrite of the workers-compensation system. They also will be looking to extend hundreds of millions of dollars worth of existing corporate tax breaks.

With Republicans still in charge of the Senate, Bender said the best labor can hope for next session is to protect the workers-compensation system.

"If the House Democrats and governor buckle on that one, there will be no mending," Bender said.

Staff reporters Andrew Garber and David Postman contributed to this report. Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com


 

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