Labor's local political machine is revving up for this fall's elections, but this year, unlike other years, local labor didn't wait until the election to get involved. In fact, one of the biggest changes at City Hall has been labor's ongoing effort to influence Seattle issues. Is it a coincidence that labor's machine roared into City Hall at the same time that Mayor Greg Nickels' wrecking ball politics crashed through the genteel veneer at Fourth and James?
The most dramatic conflict between labor and City Hall occurred last month, when Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro issued a five-page screed accusing the King County Labor Council's Rich Feldman of being a ham-handed, knuckle-scraping enforcer for both unions and the mayor. Leaving aside the difficulty of reconciling the brainy, good-natured Feldman with Nicastro's tormentor and the complicated issue of whether developer Richard Hedreen should get to transfer $6 million of housing credits to a new hotel project, it was hardly the first protest heard from City Council members about the Labor Council's methods.
The griping started before Nickels took office when the mayor-to-be faced off with the City Council over the matter of cutting the executive's budget. Labor weighed in, ostensibly because funding for a labor liaison was threatened. (Labor also backed Nickels' position on the housing levy and $50 million for the Rainier Valley to take light rail.)
City Council budget chair Jan Drago, a longtime labor stalwart, says she's uncomfortable being lobbied on the mayor's behalf by the Labor Council. "It's one thing if the issues are truly labor issues. It's another thing if it's the mayor's agenda that they have figured out a hook for."
Labor Council chief Steve Williamson denies he's anybody's water boy. As he wrote to Nicastro last month, "When I convey a message to you, it reflects the interests of our Council, not that of the Mayor, or other City Council members, or anyone else."
Williamson explains that labor has changed its approach to City Hall, but not because he's doing the mayor's bidding. In the old days, labor would simply decide who the best candidate was and then be cogs in that machine. That approach didn't produce results.
Now they operate as independent agents. First the Labor Council polls its membership and determines the key issues. The leadership translates those concerns into political issues. They grill the candidates on their positions and issue a scorecard that union activists deliver to targeted union households. It's called the labor-to-neighbor program, and it's very effective nationwide. In Seattle, most observers agreed the Labor Council impacted two razor-thin victories: Nickels' win over Mark Sidran and Lawrence Molloy's besting of Jack Block in the Seattle Port commissioner's race.
Williamson says these election victories are meaningless unless they are followed up with an "accountability program." That's what labor has been doing at City Hall—lobbying on specific issues and keeping track of the votes. During the next election, the Labor Council will have a scorecard showing how people have done.
City Council member Nick Licata, a consistent progressive, says he thinks the strategy isn't working well. By making the rating process formal and explicit, he argues, the Labor Council "opens itself up to the criticism of trying to bully people. The business community has wised up—they do it more quietly."
Williamson counters, "Isn't it better to be up front? I'd much rather be up front than behind closed doors."
City Council member Richard McIver says there's a culture clash going on. The Labor Council "is bringing an East Coast style of politics to a Seattle nonpolitics. Don't hit us over the head, sit down and chat."
Drago echoes that concern. "The Labor Council is working in an old, traditional confrontational paradigm. There is a clash in style, strategies, and tactics."
Williamson says there is a misunderstanding. "It's not about good council member, bad council member. It's about being clear and giving everyone the same information." He does, however, acknowledge some real differences. "Our members aren't concerned about the culture of the City Council. They care about getting things done. Do I need to be mindful of being respectful? Absolutely. That doesn't mean at the end of the day we don't count heads."
Counting heads, taking names, getting in people's faces—now what does that remind you of? The City Council's complaints about the political methods of the Nickels administration.
The Nickels-labor alliance appears to be both about substance and style.