March 12, 2009 in City

Labor group’s threat kills bill

Lawmakers report e-mail to sheriff
Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

OLYMPIA – State lawmakers have killed a labor-backed bill and called for a Washington State Patrol investigation after an organized labor group threatened to tie votes to campaign donations.

“The e-mail raises serious legal and ethical questions,” said a joint statement from Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state’s two top lawmakers. Once someone tried to explicitly link campaign support to legislation, they said, passing the bill “was no longer an option.”

The bill, known as the Worker Privacy Act, would have barred employers from holding mandatory meetings with workers to discuss unionization, religion or charitable giving. Companies could still hold such meetings, but they couldn’t require attendance.

To unions and other proponents, it’s a matter of worker privacy and the right to not have to listen to something you don’t support. To employers, it was a heavy-handed “gag rule.”

The bill stalled recently after an attorney general opinion suggested that it probably conflicted with federal labor law. Proponents disagreed, and the bill seemed to be getting close to passage before a key deadline today.

Then came the e-mail from a staffer at the Washington State Labor Council. It called for union leaders to send a message to the state Democratic Party and to Democratic lawmakers’ campaign groups that they would get “not another dime from labor” until the bill was signed into law, according to a copy obtained by the Seattle Times.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, House Speaker Frank Chopp and their attorneys huddled Tuesday night after lawmakers brought a copy of the message to Brown. Within hours, they’d met with Gregoire, killed the bill and reported the incident to the local sheriff. The sheriff steered the matter to the WSP.

The WSP had little to say Wednesday, except that it took the matter seriously and would work closely with prosecutors to figure out what to do.

Rick Bender, president of the Labor Council, said he regretted the incident.

“It was a result of frustration with the Legislature’s failure to protect workers’ rights in the workplace,” he said in a statement. But he added that he didn’t think the note had violated any law.

Washington lawmakers and statewide elected officials have long been barred from accepting any campaign contributions during the legislative session to avoid the unseemliness of getting checks while making laws.

Brown said it’s routine for groups to argue for or against legislation. But it’s different, she said, for a group to explicitly threaten to withhold contributions over a vote.

“It was, however, a completely isolated incident, and I intend to treat it as such,” she said.

Killing the bill also takes considerable pressure off lawmakers, who were caught in a tug-of-war between business and labor over the bill.

One group not mourning the bill’s demise: the Association of Washington Business.

“It’s time to move forward and focus on solving the bigger issues at hand,” said AWB President Don Brunell, citing the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall.

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or richr@spokesman.com.


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