Citing the high cost of gas, food and housing, hundreds of state workers converged on the Washington Capitol on Tuesday to call for larger pay raises.
"We ain't nobody's working slave, we deserve a real pay raise," the crowd of about 500 Washington Federation of State Employees chanted on the statehouse steps.
Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget office is in the midst of more than two dozen negotiations with bargaining units representing more than 60,000 of the state's more than 100,000 employees.
Even during the recently-booming economy, the workers say, their cost-of-living increases were just 2 percent last year and 3.2 percent the year before that.
Among their chants Tuesday: "Their 2 percent...Won't pay the rent!"
Neither side is saying what sort of COLA's being discussed now.
"What I always strive for is a fair but affordable contract," said state budget director Victor Moore. "Our definition of affordable and theirs is where the fight is."
Also, he said, the economy's not as healthy as it was in 2006.
That's a point made often on the campaign trail by Gregoire's main challenger, Republican Dino Rossi. Rossi recently called for a halt to public-employee contract negotiations until the state gets a better handle on how it will deal with a projected $2.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.
Rossi and other Republicans have also blasted Gregoire for bargaining with workers while the unions' political arms are helping pay for Democratic election efforts.
Rossi was singled out for a special chant Tuesday, as the workers marched up the Capitol lawn.
"Hey, hey, ho, ho! Dino Rossi's got to go!" the workers chanted.
Watching from the sidelines at Tuesday's rally was Tom Henry, a staffer for the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation. With the projected $2.7 billion shortfall, he said, the state will be hard-pressed to come up with money for larger raises.
"I sympathize, because costs are hitting state workers like everyone else," he said. "But if there's no money in the bank, there's no money in the bank."