OLYMPIA – Washington’s labor movement, including the large unions representing state workers, could be hit by the schism that rocked the umbrella organization, the AFL-CIO, on Monday.
The Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union bolted from the parent organization at its annual convention in Chicago. The dissidents, who also include the United Food and Commercial Workers, say they plan to form a competing labor coalition that will stress organizing more workers.
The split could generate spirited competition for the right to bargain for public and private-sector employees in Washington.
The state’s labor movement has recently chalked up some major victories, including election of pro-labor Democrat Christine Gregoire as governor and legislative approval of first-ever collective bargaining agreements for state workers.
About 20 percent of Washington jobs are held by union workers, the sixth-highest percentage in the country. The state gained about 8,000 new union members last year and the tally is expected to grow due to the new collective bargaining rights for state government employees.
“Washington, it’s really a shining star in many ways,” Leonard Smith, organizing director for Teamsters Local 117, told the Olympian newspaper. “If you look at how the unions operate here, we work really well together.”
David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, which represents home care and nursing home workers statewide, downplayed the rivalry in Washington.
“I think a lot of these unions have great working relationships around politics and the Legislature. I don’t see raids as productive or as helpful to workers,” he said.
The SEIU recently unionized thousands of home-care workers.
Sticking with the AFL-CIO are the influential Washington Federation of State Employees, with about 34,000 members; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, with about 15,000 state members; and the International Association of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents some Boeing workers and has 12,000 members in the state.
It’s unclear whether unions will step up their competition for the same workers, as they have in other states and to some extent in Washington, said Greg Devereux, president of the state workers federation.
But he said the rift will weaken the Washington State Labor Council. The council, with 550 locals across the state, has coordinated political efforts using dues from all its affiliates.
“If the state labor council no longer has funding to do that, the individual unions won’t either,” Devereux said. “It potentially could undermine that infrastructure.”
Council spokesman David Groves said both sides of the dispute agree on the importance of recruiting new members.
“Whether the best way to go about it is to dismantle the AFL-CIO, that remains to be seen,” he said.
State workers have recently noticed more competition among competing unions, said Steve McLain, the state government’s labor relations director.
An example, he noted, was the June election between an independent guild and the federation for the right to represent state parole officers. The federation won, “but that’s the kind of competition you could see,” McLain said.
At the AFL-CIO convention Monday, Andy Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member SEIU, said the aim is to boost union representation.
“Our goal is not to divide the labor movement but to rebuild it,” Stern said.
Their action drew a bitter rebuke from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who called it a “grievous insult” that could hurt workers already buffeted by the global economy and anti-union forces in Congress.
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