Thursday, May 27, 2010

WFSE Rocks COPE -- Now What?

WFSE members made a huge impact at the WA St Labor Council’s biennial COPE Convention. COPE is where political endorsements on behalf of the entire state federation are debated and voted, and we had 90 members there, representing 26 different locals and over 32,000 votes. We didn’t have enough votes by ourselves to block an endorsement, but our delegates where highly motivated to send a message after two years of rough treatment.

According to Jordan Schrader, reporter for the Olympian, “Sending a message that Democrats in the Legislature can’t take unions for granted, the state’s largest labor group snubbed dozens of incumbents in its endorsements… Green-shirted state employees… successfully pushed for the council representing 400,000 public and private workers to sit out in some races where unions don’t see a champion.”

In the end, a 2/3 vote to endorse was achieved in just 45 out of 123 possible legislative races. In the House, 38 endorsements were given, including 21 incumbent Democrats and one incumbent Republican (Rep. Tom Campbell). In the Senate, seven endorsements were given, including two incumbents (Sen. Karen Keiser and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles).

As Publicola pointed out, “the WSLC’s relationship with the Democratic leadership has corroded over the last two sessions in Olympia… [and] the WSLC has actually been threatening payback ever since last year…” For many union members, this was their first real opportunity to voice their displeasure. For WFSE members, it was the first time in two years they truly felt empowered.

Of course, the decision to withhold endorsements is not without risk. As Schrader wrote, “the question for labor is: Back Democrats across the board, including the ones with the toughest fights on their hands, to help the party keep its majorities in the House and Senate? Or single out only a few proven friends? State employees are particularly set against spreading money out among Democrats. Two rounds of budget cuts, including layoffs and furloughs, have left them unhappy with many legislators.“

Our members believe we have been too generous with our endorsements in the past and they want to be more selective this year, but that is the harder path. First, the decisions over whom to support are fraught with peril and some mistakes – both in terms of who is included as well as who is excluded – are inevitable. Second, there really isn’t clear, empirical evidence we can use to accurately tell the difference between who truly shares our values and who is just telling us what they think we want to hear.

Voting records are of limited value because the real decisions are made before a vote is taken. Our members are getting hammered in the discussions that occur behind closed doors, not in the votes taken on the floor – but those discussions are confidential so it’s impossible for us to document who is helping us and who isn’t when the real decisions are being made.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about our endorsement process and how to make it better. The bottom line is I don’t think an objective set of criteria that truly discerns supporters from opponents really exists. Or at least I’m not smart enough to figure it out. So that leaves us (and any other endorsing organization if they’re honest with themselves) with subjective criteria, which is by its nature flawed as well.

Our members have decided to respond to these challenges by assuming “No Endorsement” as their default position, and only agreeing to deviate from that when they believe a candidate is willing to stand up for them when it really counts. Is this (new) approach risky? Absolutely. But we have had long internal discussions about those risks and still our members remain united behind this new approach. Where this will take us remains to be seen. – Dennis

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reactions To WFSE's Endorsement Conference

I haven't commented on the decisions made at WFSE's biennial Endorsement Conference, held on April 17, because Tim covered it well in the Hotline. The bottom line is out of more than 130 races considered, delegates voted to make just 27 endorsements -- including just 18 incumbent House members and one incumbent Senator.

Olympian reporter Brad Shannon wrote about our early endorsements in his blog, and again in a story that ran in several newspapers around the state. These articles have been circulated widely among political circles and, needless to say, we've been getting a lot of "feedback" since then. We've received quite a few phone calls and e-mails from insiders reacting to the decisions our members made, as well as numerous reports of Legislators who have been trashing us behind our backs.

Publicly, the Olympian followed up with an editorial a couple of weeks later speculating that WFSE members simply can't afford to withhold support from majority Democrats in the long run:

"To say [WFSE members] are unhappy is an understatement. But we suspect the union’s peevish behavior is more show than substance at this point. By fall we would expect union workers to fall into place and line up behind at least some of the Democrats they have snubbed.

What option do they have? Endorse a long slate of Republicans? That’s not likely... Slashing state jobs and forcing state employees to pay higher medical insurance premiums will remain high on the Republicans’ priority list...

For now, the Washington Federation of State Employees have sent a message to Democrats that union support is not a given. If they continue to withhold their support for Democrats, they could be inviting a Republican-controlled Legislature. For traditional allies that is... playing with fire."

Personally, I think the Olympian's editorial is fair, and I don't disagree with the premise. The idea that while the Democrats have been harmful to our members, the Republicans would be worse is the best possible counter-argument to our members' decision to give an early endorsement to just a handful of Legislators.

From the perspective of the delegates to the Endorsement Conference, the critical question is not which candidate is the "least worst" option. Instead, what they want to know is where were these Legislators when we were under attack? Were they one of the attackers? Did they sit quietly while other legislators were trashing us? Were they more concerned about protecting their chairmanship, or winning elections, or "keeping their powder dry" then they were about doing the right thing?

State employees are an easy target and everyone from the corporate elite to the intellectually challenged love nothing more than to malign public servants. We don't poll well, and we realize that. Of course, the public depends on the critical services we provide and maintaining a qualified work force is essential to the job. Yet there are very few elected officials who have the courage or the insight to rise above bumper-sticker politics enough to make sure the government is even capable of effectively implementing the programs we all care about.

A great example of the gratuitous knee-jerk reaction can be found in a recent editorial in the Columbian. According to the Columbian, WFSE members should receive "jeers" for withholding endorsements of incumbent Democrats because "the majority Democrats (traditionally the union’s closest friends) cut too much from the budget. They are especially unhappy about the Legislature imposing a few furlough days for some state workers... What the union should realize is that many voters see these state workers as suffering from a recessionary hangnail while many voters have a broken arm or worse. While many taxpayers would agree the Democrats shirked their duty, it’s hardly because the state isn’t spending enough."

The Columbian's analysis is so ignorant and shallow that I'm not going to waste my time responding. But there is one point on which we need to be clear: our members' anger with the Legislature runs far deeper than budget cuts or furloughs. We understand there is a global economic crisis, and we realize state workers will have to endure some cuts as a result. But what is more troubling to our members are the fundamental philosophical disagreements we have with many Legislators.

We have endured two sessions of constant attacks. There have been repeated calls for increased privatization, re-opening collective bargaining agreements, amending collective bargaining laws, eliminating step increases, increasing health care costs, closing institutions, opposing bills to help workers form a union, and more. And this was just from the Democrats. The Republicans, by and large, have spent the past two sessions attacking the Democrats for not treating state workers worse.

We expected to be confronted with budget cuts and compensation reductions. We didn't expect to find out that large numbers of the elected officials whom we have supported in the past -- from the Governor, to almost all of the Senate, and including a large number of Representatives -- simply don't share our values. Whether we have been mistaken or mislead, the bottom line is we just don't agree.

Frankly, I think the "controversy" is lacking in substance. Those politicians who supported privatizing child welfare services, who fought to close DOC, JRA or DD institutions, who demanded furloughs or benefit cuts as a condition of a budget vote, or who opposed worker privacy and union organizing bills, should not be surprised to find they have lost our support. They have made it abundantly clear they disagree with us, and our members want to limit their support to candidates they agree with. What's so controversial about that? -- Dennis