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

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