Ecology workers file for union - About 1,200 employees are asked to vote on agency's first bargaining unit



Department of Ecology workers on Thursday filed a petition to create the first state employee bargaining unit in the agency's history.

The petition to the Public Employment Relations Commission asks about 1,200 Ecology workers to vote on whether to form a bargaining unit.

It also appears likely that workers will vote on which Olympia-based state employee union will represent them -- the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest state worker union; or the Washington Public Employees Association, a much smaller union that has more experience representing workers in natural resources and environmental fields.

The Federation filed Thursday's petition, which marks the largest group of state workers so far to request a union election under the new civil service laws passed by the Legislature in 2002. When those reforms are enacted next year, bargaining unit representatives will be able to negotiate salary, benefits, working conditions and other terms of employment with the state.

"Employees need to take advantage of the new collective bargaining rules so we can protect ourselves," said Pete Kmet, an environmental engineer at the department who is also a member of the Tumwater City Council.

Eugene St. John, executive director of the WPEA, said his union will soon file for "intervener" status, placing them as a choice on the ballot alongside the federation. The federation directly represents more than 20,000 state workers, while the WPEA has about 3,000 members.

"WPEA just isn't as big as the federation," said Jo Sohneronne, an environmental specialist at the agency who's on a leave of absence to help the federation organize her colleagues. "To get a good contract, I think we need to be big enough to be taken seriously."

But St. John said the WPEA has the experience to work with Ecology employees, as the union already represents workers at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Parks and the Department of Agriculture.

"I would argue that our smaller size makes us more responsive to individual needs," St. John said. "You're not going to get overshadowed by these huge bargaining units at DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services)."

St. John said he hopes the competition between the two unions remains friendly.

When collective bargaining is implemented next year, union bargainers will lead the way in the biennial process of negotiating salaries and benefits for workers in federation bargaining units.

But Ecology employees hope they'll take an active role in negotiating other terms of employment more specific to their own agency.

"There are a lot of people at the department who do complex jobs that take a long time to learn," Sohneronne said. That kind of knowledge will be important in setting particular terms and conditions at the bargaining table, she said.

The petition filed Thursday contained the signatures of about 40 percent of the 1,200 workers who would belong to the proposed bargaining unit.

The Public Employment Relations Commission will call an election sometime in the coming months -- all 1,200 of those workers are eligible to vote, and a bargaining unit will be formed if a majority of those voting call for it.

While it's not the first bargaining unit proposed under the new state rules, it's the largest so far.

Last month, workers at the departments of Health and Licensing approved Federation-sponsored bargaining units of 726 workers and 636 workers at those respective agencies. In all, about 20 petitions have been filed at the Public Employment Relations Commission.

"We expect the pace to keep picking up over the next year," federation spokesman Tim Welch said.

Workers who fall into the bargaining units do not have to personally join the union that sponsors the unit. However, they do receive the wages, benefits and other terms that are borne of bargaining unit negotiations with the state.

On the Web

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Washington Public Employees Association:


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