OLYMPIA — Home care and mental care workers will be among scores of union members and backers expected to march and rally in Olympia this week as organized labor mounts a four-day show of force in the final weeks of the Legislature’s contentious session.
“We have the goal to show over the course of the week the Legislature and the wider community, that we not only have a revenue deficit, but a social services deficit, and we have a jobs deficit in this state as well,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council.
Meanwhile, a prominent business group has launched a new, long-term campaign to try to chip away at labor’s key strongholds in Washington, and to improve certain sectors — such as transportation, patents and education — they see key to advance the state’s economy.
“In the work of an individual legislative session, sometimes we lose sight of the big picture and what we’re trying to get in this state,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group that includes big hitters such as Boeing, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines and other corporations with significant presence in the state.
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Calling it “Benchmarks for a Better Washington,” the group rolled out the campaign this past week. In 12 points, the Roundtable measured the state’s standing compared to the rest of the nation in various sectors.
It wants to keep Washington in the top 10 states in patents granted and low electricity rates. But in the student performance in math and science, bachelor’s degrees per capita, road conditions, commuting time and useful bridges, the group said Washington has a lot of work.
Mullin said that business leaders are worried about “disproportionate” cut to higher education this session, adding that they are crafting a proposal to establish a $1 billion endowment, where half the money would come from the private sector and the other half from the state.
“It catches people by surprise, in an environment of 9 percent unemployment, that we have significant openings in critical areas like engineering and other technical fields,” Mullin added.
According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, Washington is ranked behind West Virginia in the highest benefits paid for injured workers. The Roundtable also said that Washington has one of the highest unemployment insurance taxes.
They want the state out of the top 10 in combined local-state taxes on businesses, unemployment insurance tax rates and workers compensation benefits — the last two are areas where business has fought labor this year.
Unemployment taxes and workers compensation are a permanent battle for these two special interests. Business clocked in a win when the Legislature halted an increase in the unemployment tax rates early in the session, a tax break worth $300 million this year. Gov. Chris Gregoire wanted the changes, saying that it will help business around the state keep afloat as they emerge from the Great Recession.
So far, labor seems to be holding its line on changes they don’t like to the workers compensation system, stymieing a Senate bill that would add the option of settlements.
“The fundamental issue is that labor is focused on state benefits for their members,” Mullin said. “We’re interested in expanding employment.”
About 1,000 mental health care workers will walk off the job Thursday, said Jonathan Rosenblum, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union 1199 NW, the union that covers them.
“This isn’t a traditional strike against an employer. This is a strike against the state because the state funds the agencies where they work,” Rosenblum said. “Our issue, our problem is with the Legislature.”
That strike is one of the several demonstrations planned this week to underscore labor’s demands to close tax breaks for certain industries, an agenda that was put rolled out in December but hasn’t gotten much traction since then. Gregoire doesn’t support ending tax breaks for big companies such as Boeing, citing job creation.
But after seeing the revenue forecast dip another $780 million in the next two years, labor leaders said they will try again.
“We expect more than a tepid response,” Johnson said.
Any time the subject of tax loopholes is brought up, though, Republican leaders are quick to say that tax breaks go both ways, sending out earlier this week a list that included child care in churches, legal services for low-income people, and government grants to arts organization among dozens of others.
Labor leaders said trail balloons also have been sent through the Legislature about a referendum on Initiative 1053, the voter-approved initiative that requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers to raise taxes and fees.
“No one, whether labor or business, ought to feel comfortable where they are in the legislature. The best we can do is educate the members, make the best arguments we can,” Johnson said.