Eye On Olympia

Stunning setback for bill to allow child care workers to collectively bargain with the state…

In a startling moment on the Senate floor, a bill to allow child care workers to collectively bargain with the state was largely gutted Monday night after lawmakers instead turned the bill largely into a study.

"Was it a surprise? Yeah," said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, who'd sponsored an earlier version of the plan.

House Bill 1329 would allow child care providers and workers to unionize and collectively bargain the state-paid fees for children whose care is subsidized. It is strongly supported by the Service Employees International Union, which says that higher rates are key to professionalizing an industry plagued by low pay, high turnover and a lack of training and career opportunities.

Many lawmakers agree that the state rates are too low. Some, like Marr, say that the answer is to let the workers join together and -- with the added clout of a union -- push the legislature for better rates.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said an organized workforce would mean better conditions for both caregivers and children. They'll be "on a stronger footing" when lobbying lawmakers for better rates. At a time when many other people -- nurses, teachers, garbage collectors, bus drivers -- have joined together to bargain collectively, she said, it's high time for the people who care for the youngest, most vulnerable Washingtonians do the same.

Others, like Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, say the best answer is simply for Olympia to do the right thing and raise the rates. Critics were also uncomfortable with a provision of the bill that would have taken union dues directly out of the state's subsidy payments, instead of directly from workers.

"We don't need to basically hire a union to do this for us," said Hatfield.

The bill seemed cleared for takeoff, with Democrats and Republicans teaming up on an earlier amendment that watered down the bill to address critics' concerns. The amendment made the bill apply only to child care centers that opted into it. It also limited the scope of bargaining. Instead of an overhaul, it was a much-narrower "demonstration project."

Then Hatfield proposed his amendment, which stripped out large sections of the bill. It mainly left a study, to be completed by August 2010.

In a surprise move, a dozen mostly-conservative Democrats joined with every Republican lawmaker to pass Hatfield's proposal. The much-watered-down bill passed minutes later with virtually no more discussion.

The vote was yet another blow to organized labor this session. Unions, including SEIU, have tried for months to convince seemingly-reluctant lawmakers to push ahead with a tax increase to offset budget cuts. And labor's top priority this session, a bill to bar employers from requiring attendance at anti-unionization meetings, was torpedoed by top lawmakers in a tussle over a union official's threat to withhold campaign support.

The child care bill now goes back to the House, which passed the bill in its full, original version. If the legislation survives, Marr predicted, it will likely be in a "very scoped-down, narrow form."

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