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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Inslee probably not giving away the store

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee raised eyebrows, and some blood pressures, among some legislative Republicans and other conservatives last week with comments about state worker salaries on the eve of contract talks.

“It’s just clear to me that it’s unacceptable state employees have gone so long without a general pay increase,” he was quoted as telling members of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

Some suggested he was making a concession on wages before contract talks even started. Perhaps they would have liked him to suggest workers should get ready to swallow pay cuts or expect to be replaced by robots. . . 

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. . . Taken at face value, what Inslee said wasn’t a concession as much as an effort to open talks on a “we’re all in this together” note.

First, as someone who negotiated labor contracts in the past from the union side of the table – The Spokesman-Review’s reporters, photographers and copy editors have a small, in-house union, and everyone serves time as an officer – I would have liked nothing better than to sit down to negotiations after my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss said something like that.

But I’d expect the negotiators on the other side to counter with something akin to the next thing Inslee’s staff say he told union members but didn’t get as much coverage: that the state’s looking at a very tough budget year and it has to deal with the coming fiscal challenges in a responsible way.

In other words, we’d love to give you more money, if it’s there. If not, oh well.

Second, Inslee wasn’t saying anything new.

“This is something the governor has stated before. It’s a major policy issue for him,” David Postman, Inslee’s communications chief, said. Making the comment at a union gathering was not like saying it at the negotiating table.

Like most top bosses, Inslee doesn’t negotiate labor contracts. A team from the Office of Financial Management, the state’s number crunchers, does that. Diane Lutz, who oversees the negotiating team, said they knew even before last weekend’s comments the governor would like to give state employees a raise.

“What that’s going to translate into, as far as the state budget is concerned, nobody knows,” she said.

How long state workers have gone without a general pay increase depends a bit on how one calculates. They received a negotiated 2 percent increase in July 2008, then took a 3 percent cut in 2011. That 3 percent was restored last year, so some people argue that was a raise, but others say no, that brought them back to even. Individual workers get increases as they move up in the seniority steps, but the general pay scale is where it was in 2008.

The money to pay the wages comes from the taxpayers, which is to say all of us – including, some people forget, state employees. Inevitably when these contracts come up, there’s a certain amount of grousing about whether government workers have it better than those in the private sector.

The state doesn’t keep track of the number of taxpayers who haven’t had a raise since the recession hit in 2008. Statistics from the Employment Securities Department show average wages for all workers went up about 11 percent between 2008 and 2012, the last full year for statistics. State government workers overall saw an average wage increase of about 3 percent over that period, lower than most of the 20 general categories the department tracks. That average increase in wages is partly due to the fact there were 4,000 fewer state government workers by 2012.

When the unions and the OFM negotiators reach tentative agreements the governor will support, there’s another step in the process. The Legislature has to approve the contracts, too. Under a 2002 law, legislators aren’t part of the process up to that point, and some of them don’t like the fact negotiations take place in secret, without them there.

Most labor negotiations in the private sector take place in secret, too, for a very practical reason. Proposals get passed back and forth and change constantly. A union negotiator learns to say as little as possible, not to raise members’ hopes when talks go well or dash them when talks get difficult.

Even so, there’s never any shortage of people to offer advice on how to get the other side to its knees and give us what we want. In the private sector, contract talks can drag on for a long time. But the law says state union negotiations should be complete by Oct. 1.

With 147 legislators in the room kibitzing, they’d be lucky to be done by Jan. 1 – of 2025.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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