Spokane County employees appear ready for a massive walkout for the second time in three years, even though workers have ratified a contract, a top union official said.
The odds of a strike “are over 50 percent,” said Chris Dugovich, president of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees. “Close to 1,000 people’s cost-of-living increase is tied up in court.”
County officials say they have no way of knowing whether Dugovich’s prediction is mere posturing. But most negotiations are deadlocked and everyone expects a long court battle over several points.
“Maybe they will (strike),” said county Commissioner Phil Harris. “I just hope not because I don’t think the hearts of the rank and file are in it.”
Union members voted last week to adopt a “master contract” that covers all employees except sheriff’s deputies, jailers and engineers. It is the first time both sides agreed to one contract to cover seven locals.
But county commissioners are forbidden by a court order from signing the contract.
Commissioner Steve Hasson violated that order last week, and may face contempt of court charges as a result. Commissioners John Roskelley and Harris did not sign it.
At issue is whether about 100 employees in the prosecutor’s office and District Court should be covered under the same contract as their colleagues in other departments.
Prosecutor Jim Sweetser and the judges say that since they are elected officials, they alone should negotiate working conditions for their employees. They don’t quibble with the commissioners’ right to set wages and salaries.
For the judges, the issue strikes at the heart of constitutional separation between the judicial and executive branches of government, said presiding District Court Judge Dan Maggs.
“We are not going to have our internal working policies set by the executive branch,” Maggs said.
Sweetser argues that deputy prosecutors do not have collective bargaining rights under state law.
While the master contract gives employees protection against being fired without “just cause,” Sweetser argues his deputies are political appointees, who can be fired at will.
“What we’re talking about is the ability of the policy maker to be able to fulfill the policy” outlined in his political campaign, Sweetser said.
Sweetser said he wouldn’t mind including his clerical workers in the master contract, if it contained a clause allowing him to reorganize the office without union approval. That clause is not part of the proposed contract, and would likely be rejected by the union.
In August, Sweetser and the judges obtained the court order tying the commissioners’ hands. The treasurer, clerk, Superior Court judges and other elected officials did not join the legal action.
“The contract’s not bothering me right now. I can live with it,” said Auditor Bill Donahue.
Still, Donahue said, “I have to agree with Sweetser” that county commissioners should not establish the working conditions for other elected officials.
County officials say they could sign the contract, if the union would agree to delete the prosecutor’s office and the courts. The union isn’t interested.
The battle is heading to court over several issues.
When talks broke down, the union filed a grievance with the Public Employees Relations Council, which launched an investigation. Spokane County District Court judges on Tuesday told Lincoln County Judge Philip Borst that the agency doesn’t have authority over them.
Borst has not yet ruled on the matter, which could set a precedent for negotiations with public employees statewide. His decision undoubtedly will be appealed no matter what he decides.
Sweetser is going to court for a clarification on whether the deputy prosecutors have collective bargaining rights and to argue that commissioners can’t set employment policies for other elected officials.
Maggs may be filing a petition asking Adams County Judge Richard Miller to punish Hasson for signing the contract. The judge said Thursday that he’s waiting for a copy of the signed contract before deciding whether to take action.
Meanwhile, union members who attended a meeting last week overwhelmingly gave their leadership authority to call a strike. Bill Keenan, Spokane union representative, said that won’t happen without another vote.
Commissioners say they’re caught between the union, the judges and Sweetser.
Harris and Roskelley, who is counting on labor’s help in winning the Nov. 5 election, are in trouble with the union for not signing the contract. Hasson, whose term expires Jan. 1, is in trouble with the prosecutor and judges for signing it.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EFFECTS OF STRIKE VARY Whether county residents were affected by the six-day strike by Spokane County employees in 1993 depended on what services they needed. That likely would be the case this year, as well. Some agencies, like the purchasing and planning departments, were nearly fully staffed in 1993 with workers who crossed the picket lines. Garbage collection in the county is handled by private companies, so it wasn’t affected. Sheriff’s deputies continued patrolling. The Public Works Department was nearly vacant. Its employees oversee road work and sewer construction, and sign some of the documents necessary to build a house or store. Likewise, the assessor’s office was understaffed, though landowners didn’t appear to mind the delay in having their property reappraised for tax purposes. Property taxes due the end of this month still will have to be paid even if workers are on strike, said Auditor Bill Donahue. But there may not be workers to deal with the long lines of taxpayers that normally form on tax day. The courthouse suffered from a lack of janitorial service during the 1993 strike. Some restrooms were closed or left unclean, and many toilet paper holders were empty. Courts remained open. That probably would change if there is a strike this year, since working conditions for employees in the courts and the prosecutor’s office is the primary point of contention between union and management. No elections were affected during the June 1993 strike. A strike this year could come just in time for the Nov. 5 general election. Elections supervisor Tom Wilbur said five of his seven full-time employees crossed the picket line in 1993. The election must go on, strike or no strike, Wilbur said. - Dan Hansen