OUTSIDE THE DEPARTMENT of Labor and Industries' glass tepee in Tumwater, torrents of rain alternated with blasts of watery sunshine: an April afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, fit to bring out the latent Wordsworth in the most impassive soul. Deep inside, in a windowless conference room, by contrast, the talents of a Kafka were more in order. Despite a carefully managed air of prosaic routine, you had a feeling of things unspoken shouting for attention.
The director of L&I, Gary Moore, was ostensibly available to discuss state policy with the press should the Federation of State Employees follow through on their threat to strike if certain contractual demands were not met. This was slightly odd in itself, since you would usually expect the governor, not the director of L&I, to be making policy on such a subject. Jeff Wethersby from the Gov's press office was in attendance, as was Gov. Locke's senior media handler Ed Penhale: Where was the man himself?
Anyway, wasn't state policy already clear? The preceding weekend, when the subject first was broached, Locke had reminded state employees that under state law they have no contractual right to strike; only the day before, Attorney General Christine Gregoire had flatly declared that if the 19,000-odd members of the union went on strike, she would ask the courts to order them back to work.
What a difference a day makes. L&I's Moore, himself a former leader of the state employee union, carefully avoided the very word "strike," though he admitted having heard something about possible "job actions," and threatening—no, "threatening" is much too vigorous a word, "mentioning" is more like it—that any employees observed so job-acting would have the hours taken off counted against their annual vacation or comp time. Ouch.
A queasy air of unreality began to pervade the room. Do you expect a strike or not? Yes and no. What's the difference between a job action and a strike? We'll have to wait and see. Does this represent a change of position by the governor and attorney general? We don't see it that way. Well, have you taken any steps to mobilize resources to ensure no interruption of essential services? We have been in close communication with the union to ensure that doesn't happen. Any further questions? Thank you for your time.
Once the job actions began at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the sense of unreality only broadened. Reporters were provided with meticulous lists of just where and when which union members would be taking part in the "rolling strike": grain inspectors at the Port of Kalama from morn to midnight Wednesday, an all-day Thursday walkout at the Soldier's Home and Colony in Orting, a rally of all Social and Health Service employees in the lower Yakima Valley, peaceful picketing only at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake. It soon became abundantly clear that state authorities had the lists even before the press did. Call it a job action, a strike, or an English muffin, this was going to be a labor dispute in which the disputants were bending over backwards to avoid even an appearance of conflict.
AND NO WONDER. Once you look past the conventional rhetoric from both sides, it becomes hazily clear that the apparent disputants are engaged in ritual, not real, combat, for an audience not ostensibly involved at all. The union's primary demand—cost-of-living wage parity with the teachers of the Washington Education Association—is already written into the budget passed three weeks ago by the state Senate.
That budget is now sitting in the House, where Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided, and where fiscal conservatism is far more deeply entrenched. The nimble and risky high-wire finagling with programs, projections, and pension funds whereby the Senate achieved budget balance has roused considerable disquiet among House members. In theory, the House had to pass its version of the budget by last Saturday. In fact, as of press time there was no concrete evidence that Appropriations co-chairs Helen Sommers and Barry Sehlin had been able to contrive a counterproposal with a hope of winning the support of their own membership, let alone the Senate or the governor.
Can it be that the whole elaborate performance taking place at government offices round the state is designed only to convince wavering House moderates of both parties to come together on a budget? If not a budget of their own devising, perhaps the budget that the Senate has so thoughtfully provided them as a template? It wouldn't be the first time: Back in 1999, the House bogged down so badly writing their own budget that Democrats were able to line up four Republican votes to pass a lightly amended Senate version.
Beyond the currently deadlocked House, looking forward with dread to governor-mandated ordeal by special session until a budget is passed, there's another intended audience for the statewide strike extravaganza. So far unindicted as an active co-conspirator in bringing on the state's grievous financial woes is the Public at Large. In the last decade, with a collective extravagance and irresponsibility currently unmatched in American politics at the state level, We the People have used the initiative process to sever artery after financial artery keeping the body politic alive.
In November 2000, we compounded the assault by mandating hundreds of millions in additional expenditure (Initiative 732, boosting teacher salaries) while curtailing the state's ability to pay for existing services even further—all in the name of justice, tax relief, and popular sovereignty. By and large, legislators have shamelessly truckled to our fiduciary fecklessness, no matter what the impact on state services, the environment, public health, you name it, and in the process actively promoted the idea that all public employees are lazy, privileged parasites—not the sinew of the state, but mere fat to be cut.
Since our elected officials have failed to put up more than token resistance to the dismantling of the state's physical and human infrastructure, I guess we should be grateful that state employees have taken up the banner. It's a risky path they've chosen, and if they succeed in persuading the Legislature to do its duty, they'll get no thanks from the executive, Locke, they're covering for. But someone had to do it, even though the someone hasn't yet officially admitted that's what they're doing. But if union leaders haven't been entirely candid, the union's foot soldiers are under no illusions about why they're on the picket line. As state grain inspector Stan Larsen told The Seattle Times: "It raises the attention of the public and the Legislature that we're serious."