As workers continue to breathe new life into the labor movement across the US, some Washington State Democrats want to make it easier for workers to organize and fight for better working conditions. 

In the third-most union dense state in the country, the Washington Labor Council, AFL-CIO, expects the pro-worker Democrats they helped get elected to get shit done. And with Dems holding comfortable majorities in both chambers, they have no excuse not to live up to their campaign promises of being the party for working people. 

“Working people statewide have shown up year after year to bring lawmakers to Olympia who are committed to meeting the needs of workers, not just the wealthy few–we expect big progress this year,” said Sybill Hyppolite, the government affairs director at Washington Labor Council.

Strike with Less Strife

Senator Karen Keiser will champion two bills to protect workers while they strike or endure lockouts during labor disputes with bosses. 

The first bill, Senate Bill 5777, which Keiser prefiled in December, will allow these workers to access unemployment benefits after two weeks off the clock. 

Workers miss out on wages when they go on strike. Some unions support these workers with strike funds, which the workers pay into via union dues. For example, UAW, one of the largest, most diverse unions in North America, pays workers $100 a day while on strike. But even workers lucky enough to have a strike fund would be better off receiving unemployment checks. In Washington State, workers can earn up to $1,019 a week from unemployment. 

According to Hyppolite, SB 5777 is a “top priority” for the labor council’s membership this year. 

“Instead of negotiating a fair contract, employers weaponize the economic instability of workers, especially low-wage workers, and starve them out,” she wrote in an email to The Stranger. She pointed to the recent writers strike as an example. Studio executives admitted that “the endgame is to allow things to drag out until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

Hyppolite said New York and New Jersey already passed similar protections, so Washington can, too. California tried to cover striking workers, but Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed it because the state’s unemployment benefits fund was already more than $18 billion in debt. 

Keiser said that won’t be an issue in Washington. According to a November report, Washington’s unemployment insurance trust fund balance sat at about $3.7 billion, which equals a little more than seven months of benefit. That report shows a healthy forecast for the future of the fund, with growing reserves at the end of every year through the 2023 to 2027 forecast.  

Still, the Legislature does not know how much it will cost to give striking workers unemployment benefits. The Employment Security Department told The Stranger it will submit a fiscal note for the bill, estimating the cost, if the Legislature requests it. 

Similarly, Keiser will pick up her fight from last session for Senate Bill 5632, which will allow these workers access to health benefits. 

Just as bosses rely on lack of income to make workers more amenable at the bargaining table, they can use health care as leverage against their workers, since insurance is often tied to employment. 

Hyppolite said PeaceHealth, a nonprofit health care system, had the “audacity to threaten to withhold health benefits” from striking health care workers in Southwest Washington. The threats from bosses worked, and the union shortened its strike to avoid losing health insurance. 

If SB 5632 had been law at the time, those workers could have received insurance from the Washington Health Benefit Exchange. Then, the workers could have gone on strike longer, which would have allowed them to exercise their power as workers and maybe score a better contract. 

Providing health care to striking workers won’t be free, but the fiscal note says the Legislature does not yet know how much it will cost.

Tune Out the Boss Man 

Keiser also introduced Senate Bill 5778, which will protect workers when they would rather just do their normal job duties than listen to their bosses talk politics, religion, or spew anti-union garbage in what is known as “captive audience” meetings.

Bosses use captive audience meetings to intimidate their employees or feed them misinformation in an effort to nip a union in the bud. 

About 89% of all employers host compulsory captive audience meetings when their workers try to organize, according to National Labor Relation Board (NLRB) documents. A report by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that those meetings slash election win rates from 73% to 47%. Not a bad strategy for the bosses!

To skirt potential violations of an employer's free speech, the law would not prohibit bosses from inviting their subordinates to their little lectures, but it would protect those who decide they actually have more important work responsibilities than listening to some dude talk about how the union will take away pizza parties or something. 

At least 18 states have tried to pass laws protecting workers from these union-busting meetings. Six states have succeeded, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, and our neighbor to the south, Oregon, which made history by enacting the law in 2010.

Let the Bargaining Begin

Even if Democrats get bogged down in the short session, or if they get too scared to move while the cartoon-villain Republicans run detrimental initiatives repealing their hard-fought incrementalist victories, workers can count on at least one victory.

Thanks to a law passed last year, staff workers in the Legislature can form a union starting in May of this year. 

However, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, the House majority leader, will have to figure out the exact rules for collective bargaining this session, including who the “employer” is, which workers get covered, and how the contracts get approved.

Fitzgibbon said he will submit the bill Tuesday or Wednesday. He said it will be very similar to a draft bill from the Office of State Legislative Labor Relations, but it will expand the scope of which employees get in the bargaining unit. In a text to The Stranger, he said he’s confident that the “Legislature is prepared to support our outstanding and hardworking staff.” After so many hiccups for workers in the Legislature—thank god.