King County Executive Dow Constantine rolled out a list of policy proposals today in a speech to the county council. The “Blueprint for Reform” covered all the standard political pieties—cutting costs and eliminating inefficiencies—and included some interesting specifics, like a new cabinet level position to cover labor relations.
The proposed Office of Labor Relations would “report directly to the Executive and the Deputy Executive,” in an attempt to streamline the negotiation process, and allow Constantine’s office easier involvement. County labor negotiations are currently handled by an outfit which Constantine described, in a phone interview with The Stranger, as “buried” with the Human Resources department.
“[The proposal] would elevate the labor negotiator to a cabinet level position where the lead labor negotiator reports directly to me,” Constantine said after the speech. “We need to make the chain of responsibility much clearer... to end what has been a frustrating situation for our workers with the management negotiators at the table not always having the authority they need to make agreements there on the spot.”
There is a list of candidates for the job, but Constantine was unable to share their names. “This is not a job that has been created with a particular person in mind, this is a job created with a need in mind,” he said. (In a press release, Constantine stated his intention to send the legislation to the Council for approval soon.)
Constantine also restated his position that all negotiation will take place at the bargaining table, and not through the media. As a result, the speech did little to address concerns about rising costs of King County’s labor contracts. But County Council woman Kathy Lambert (Republican), who proposed sweeping reforms to the county’s labor contract policies last week, endorsed the speech’s contents.
“I think it’s a great idea to have a labor person who reports directly to him…because it is very important that labor have direct access if they have issue or a problem,” Lambert said.
Lambert also praised Constantine’s his general openness. “He came over with his staff last week, with copies of his plan" asking for suggestions and improvements, she said. “I read it last Thursday. That showed a lot of faith and trust.”
Constantine’s promise of “a partnership with employees” was well received by the county’s labor leaders who offered consistent praise of the speech.
“We were pleased that Executive Constantine recognized that county employees are the most important asset at the County,” said Kim Cook, President of SEIU local 925 in an email message. “We are glad to know that Executive Constantine will engage employees as partners to push for innovations throughout the county.”
But don’t expect all this peace, love, and understanding to last. The county must plug a $60 million hole in its budget, and employee wages and benefits compose the largest percentage of the overall budget. Most of Lambert’s proposals go far beyond Constantine’s comfort zone, but both agree that the cost of living adjustment (COLA) included in the county’s labor negotiating policy should be dropped from a floor of two percent per year, to zero percent. (Currently county employees get at least a two percent bump every year to account for inflation, the COLA reforms would allow the county to take that down to zero, an ability that is both good policy and good politics, particularly in recession years.) But this cost-cutting tactic will only go so far, and the unions, if they decide to eat the COLA reform, won’t want to face more cuts. Then things could get ugly.