State workers' threatened strike a clunker

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WASHINGTON voters said last fall they wanted to raise school teachers' pay. They didn't say a word about the pay of highway maintenance workers, fish-and-wildlife patrol officers or other state employees.

Now in an ill-considered act of me-too-ism, state employees - everyone from mental health workers to people who change directional signals for highway express lanes - are threatening random, unannounced walkouts as early as this week to pressure lawmakers for better raises and benefits.

Gov. Gary Locke offered state employees a 2.2 percent raise this year and 2.5 percent next year; the Senate budget offers the same raises teachers get as a result of last fall's teacher's salary initiative, I-732 - 3.7 percent this year, 3.1 percent next year.

State employees are glad to have Senate budget salary increases - if they hold in negotiations with House budget writers - but are angered by a boost in health care premiums they'd have to pay.

The state, which now pays 94 percent of health care premiums for state workers, would pay 90 percent of those costs after two years. That's still a healthy health care package. Comparison studies vary but workers in comparable jobs in private industry typically don't fare that well.

Rising health care costs are one of several trouble spots in the budget this year, followed by the earthquake, energy crisis and costs of covering two public school related initiatives passed last November, including I-732.

State employees work hard. They deserve respect and fair compensation. Some employee job classifications have lagged behind the private sector while others haven't stalled as much.

But a strike - even rolling or random walkouts rather than a full-scale walkout - would have a sour odor in one of the tightest budget years in memory.

State employees say teachers and state employees have traditionally received the same percentage increase in salaries. That is often true. But insisting state employees are entitled to everything teachers won at the ballot is disingenuous.

Teachers got cost of living salary increases by asking. Voters said "yes" because they place a high value on education and believe teachers are underpaid.

If state employees wanted salary increases and better benefits, they should have asked voters instead of piggy-backing on good will toward teachers. Initiatives by nature address specific problem at a specific time without providing lawmakers a chance to fiddle and adjust elsewhere. The initiative may have altered any earlier linkage.

State employees should abandon the overheated walkout talk. A strike may be illegal and will certainly result in bad public relations for employees who struggle to maintain public confidence and good will.

It's hard to say what year will be right for state employees to strike to seek more money and better benefits. It's easy to say, not now.