Labor pains

City attorney candidate Jim Cline says he's a labor lawyer, but many unions oppose him.

JIM CLINE wants to be your next city attorney, and he’s banking on his pro-labor image to get him there.

But is the man who proudly claims the label “hard-ass” really the union guy his campaign wants you to think he is? Cline calls himself a labor attorney, and he does represent several police guilds and other independent unions from King County to Eastern Washington. And he says he’s well prepared to work in “any kind of unionized setting,” including the city attorney’s office; he’s even pledged to “bargain in good faith” with his employees if they decide to unionize.

But union representatives and government workers who’ve dealt with Cline over the years paint a much different image of the amiable, high-energy candidate. They point to a r鳵m頴hat includes a long list of attempted takeovers of existing public employees’ unions, a heated six-year battle for control of an engineers’ union in King County, and a hostile relationship with Washington’s largest group of unions, the AFL-CIO’s Washington State Labor Council.

The city attorney’s office prosecutes misdemeanors, defends the city against lawsuits, provides departments with legal advice, and has a staff of 84 attorneys. The current incumbent, Mark Sidran, is running for mayor. The race to replace Sidran is a very competitive, three-way battle between Cline, monorail advocate Tom Carr, and Edsonya Charles, a federal prosecutor with a background in social services. Will labor make a difference in this contest?

Chris Dugovich, an organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), hopes union support will be crucial. Dugovich, whose union battled with Cline over representation of a group of King County prosecutors several years ago, says Cline “became somewhat of a mercenary” after forming his own law firm, Cline and Associates, in 1994. After helping organize the prosecutors’ union in the late 1980s, Cline abruptly switched sides, Dugovich says, deciding “that was a piece of business he would like to have, so he set up an election and removed us.”

The process of replacing a union is fairly simple, according to labor representatives: Someone, usually an attorney, steps into a workplace where the workers are unhappy with their existing leadership and offers, often at the union members’ behest, to supplant it. The attorney may offer to replace members’ monthly union dues with a fee-for-service model, and agree to represent them in labor negotiations and take care of employee grievances. The union holds an election, votes the old leadership out, and re-forms with a new contract and representatives.

This process, needless to say, does not endear Cline to the unions he replaces. Cline represented the King Country prosecuting attorneys for only four years, but the acrimony the split created within Seattle’s labor movement still lingers. “He’s touting all these incredible union credentials, and it’s ridiculous. He’s had nothing but a very bad relationship with unions,” Dugovich says. “The key is that he replaced an AFL-CIO union with Brand X, and he was Brand X.” The practice of removing one union and replacing it with another—known in labor circles as a “raid,” and in lawyer circles as a “change of representation petition”—would become a hallmark of Cline’s career over the following decade.

“He did develop a reputation for raiding unions,” says former Cline associate Chris Vick, who worked with Cline for four years as a partner in the law firm Aitchison, Hoag, Vick and Taruntino. Vick says that in general, Cline is “a good lawyer” who has had “mixed results.” He notes, however, that Cline is very controversial as a “labor” lawyer. “Under the international constitution of the AFL-CIO, it’s prohibited for a union to raid another union, so naturally the AFL-CIO feels very strongly about [outsiders] raiding their bargaining units,” Vick notes. So strongly, in fact, that a few years back the State Labor Council voted to put Cline on its “do not patronize” list, an action that significantly narrowed Cline’s list of potential union clients. Meanwhile, during this election campaign, the King County Labor Council, the umbrella group for AFL-CIO unions throughout King County, voted to oppose Cline’s bid for office before it even made an endorsement in his race, a nearly unprecedented decision.

Eventually, the council endorsed one of Cline’s opponents, Tom Carr. Cline is incredulous at organized labor’s support for Carr. He points out that Carr refuses to pledge his support for binding arbitration for employees who challenge the city attorney when they’re disciplined or discharged. (Currently, the city attorney does not have to show just cause or provide arbitration when firing or disciplining employees.) “I can’t believe the [King County] Labor Council endorsed him,” Cline says. “I have to believe they wouldn’t have endorsed him had they known he didn’t support arbitration.”

Carr says the Labor Council knew about his position on binding arbitration because Cline brought it up. “They saw it as a campaign trick,” Carr claims. Carr says he has reservations about binding arbitration for attorneys, citing the recent decision by an arbitrator to restore the job of a King County deputy sheriff who maced and kicked women during the WTO protests. Carr says he prefers a policy that attorneys who work for the city be fired only for “good cause,” but ultimately he says the matter is most appropriate for the bargaining table, not the campaign trail.

CLINE RILED ANOTHER public employees’ union back in 1995, when he worked to organize a group of Metro technical workers as Metro merged with King County. According to Ray Goforth, a union representative involved in the case, Cline angered union members when he attempted to “bust” the two established unions representing King County workers and replace them with a “front group” represented by him. Initially, Goforth says, Cline tried to convince the union members to disband on their own; when that didn’t work, he says, Cline “filed a hopelessly complicated series of efforts” at the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to disband the bargaining units. Although Cline’s maneuvers were unsuccessful—”he lost every step along the way,” according to his former associate Vick—he did manage, Goforth says, to deny union members their annual cost of living raise, which was put on hold during the negotiations. The battle, which involved lawsuits, numerous allegations of unfair labor practices, and a picket line outside County Executive Ron Sims’ office, finally ended in settlement earlier this year, when the county broke the engineers’ group up “into four bargaining units that made sense to us” according to Sims’ labor liaison Kathy Oglesby. “When Cline stopped trying to bust the existing unions and gave us an agreement that he would not try to do so for three years into the future, we didn’t have a problem” with the separate engineers’ group, Goforth says.

There’s no doubt that Cline is unpopular with traditional labor unions. Police unions, however, are another matter. Cline has been criticized for being too cozy with the cops, and looking at his endorsements, it’s easy to see why. Cline’s list of supporters largely duplicates his client roster, and includes the State Council of Police and Sheriffs, the Washington State Patrol Troopers Association, the Seattle Police Guild, and the Seattle Police Management Association. Only one of Cline’s endorsers, the Skyway Firefighters Association, is an AFL-CIO affiliate. “Police officers aren’t strong unionists,” Cline observes. “For these police groups, [my] being on the [Washington State Labor Council’s] ‘do not patronize’ list does not faze them a bit.” That’s because, unlike other public employees, police officers tend to be more politically conservative, more independent, and less reliant on unions’ organizing expertise and political clout. Police unions, Cline says, “find they are better served by having a lawyer involved earlier in the [bargaining] process.” With traditional AFL-CIO unions—what Cline calls “top-down” unions for their tiered organizational structure—”there’s no guarantee that you’re going to have a lawyer” at all.

On the other hand, union supporters point out, having a lawyer isn’t always a good thing. For one thing, lawyers cost more. “We have monthly dues that stay the same, and it’s an all-inclusive cost,” says AFSCME’s Dugovich. “When you have a law firm doing it, they bill hourly.”

Cline counters that most AFL-CIO union business reps are “very well paid.” He argues that the cost of being represented by a lawyer like himself or a traditional union is “usually comparable.”

But Cline’s critics say the issue goes deeper than union members’ pockets. “Generally, a union offers a more comprehensive service,” says Oglesby, a former AFSCME organizer. “The legal aspect is certainly a large portion of what a union representative does, but there’s also this whole side of it where you’re counseling people on problems that aren’t technically contractual.”

Spencer Thal, a Teamsters organizer whose union crossed swords with Cline during the King County engineers’ labor negotiations, says that particularly for public-sector employees, AFL-CIO affiliation is “critical, because public-sector representation is all about political power. It’s very difficult to do that with an independent organization.” And although lawyers do offer a valuable service, Goforth adds, they can’t provide the solidarity that the larger labor movement provides. “The strength [of organized unions] doesn’t come from the experts, like the lawyers and the economists; the strength comes from the members.”

Can Cline ride to the city attorney’s office on police support alone? The candidate himself is blas頡bout his lack of traditional union support. “I am involved in representing some non-AFL-CIO unions, and that participation on has created a difference of opinion between me and the AFL-CIO,” he says. In a subsequent e-mail, Cline elaborated. “There are democratic, employee driven unions and there are top down, union bureaucrat driven unions. This is all ultimately about democratic unions and employee choice,” Cline wrote. “The suggestion that non-AFL-CIO unions aren’t legitimate is wrong and undermines any efforts of broader union solidarity.”

Still, in a town where union support can be the deciding factor in a tight election, Cline may find that his labor history haunts him.