Home-care union blended force, finesse to win gains

OLYMPIA — Given the state's feeble fiscal climate, odds are you didn't get much from the 58th Washington State Legislature.

Unless, of course, you happened to be Boeing, or Microsoft, or Amgen. Oh, or the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

That's right, the SEIU — a once-obscure union that represents many of the state's lowest-paid workers — has emerged as one of Olympia's most powerful players.

Last year, the union came to town seeking approval for the first-ever contract between the state and 26,000 home-health-care workers. The answer from some key legislative leaders: fat chance.

But earlier this month, when the House and Senate put the contract to a vote, both approved it. Unanimously.

With their contract finally in place, home-care workers will see their wages climb to $8.93 an hour later this year, up from $7.18 when this battle began. And for the first time ever, they will get health-insurance benefits and workers'-compensation coverage.

Though the union didn't get everything it wanted from the Legislature, you have to put it in perspective. Home-care workers won raises at a time when most state employees and teachers were seeing their paychecks pinched.

Besides the SEIU, about the only other groups that managed to pry much money out of this Legislature were the big corporations that won hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new or renewed tax breaks.

It's not unusual for big companies to get their way in Olympia. But how did the SEIU do it?

For starters, the union had sympathy on its side. Home-care workers toil day and night helping low-income elderly and disabled people with their daily routines — going to the bathroom, bathing, getting dressed, cooking and taking medications.

But the real story here was the SEIU's tenacious lobbying effort, a potent mix of force and finesse. In the end, there wasn't a legislator in sight willing to risk getting crossways with the home-care workers and their union — especially not in an election year.

Bill Milton, a 65-year-old home-care worker who for the past two years spent much of his spare time hounding legislators, said the contract fight was discouraging at times. But now he's proud of what the union and its members pulled off.

"You can affect things and you can have a voice," said Milton, who cares for an 81-year-old World War II veteran in Olympia. "But you don't get anything from anybody if you don't kick up a little dust."

When lobbying began

In 2001, when the SEIU began its push to organize, home-care workers were making barely more than minimum wage and didn't even have the right to unionize.

SEIU leaders and other long-term-care advocates began lobbying to give home-care workers collective bargaining rights. When lawmakers shot down that idea, the union vowed to take the issue to the voters.

The union spent $1 million on Initiative 775, which voters approved overwhelmingly.

About a year later, SEIU leaders negotiated a contract that called for $2.07-an-hour raises and an array of new state-subsidized benefits.

Then it was back to the Legislature to get the money to pay for the contract. On the opening day of last year's session, the union bused more than 500 workers and their clients to Olympia to stage a noisy rally.

Their timing could hardly have been worse. With the state facing a projected $2.6 billion revenue shortfall, legislative budget leaders balked at the nearly $100 million cost of the home-care contract.

The union turned up the heat. There was no sight more common around the Capitol last year than SEIU's trademark purple T-shirts, ponchos and placards. Home-care workers and their disabled clients — many of them in wheelchairs — packed committee rooms.

SEIU members made nearly 1,500 "Purple Presence" visits to the Legislature last year, and bombarded legislators — Republicans and Democrats — with phone calls, postcards, e-mail messages and faxes.

Many legislators bristled at the union's tactics.

Gail Doll, an SEIU member from Everett, thinks legislators had grown too accustomed to home-care workers as "meek and mild." The union's motto for the contract fight was "Invisible no more."

"So they weren't exactly prepared for it when we came down here and, yeah, we were a little rough," Doll said.

At times, things got personal. During one rally, home-care workers mocked then-Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, budget chief in the Senate. "Dino Rossi, Dino Rossi, cheap and mean," they sang to the tune of "Frère Jacques."

When then-Senate Majority Leader Jim West branded the SEIU's lobbyists and other critics "perpetual pathetics," 75 union members and supporters staged a rally outside his home in Spokane. The union also had the former caretaker of West's late mother write a letter urging him to "stop being so selfish."

Late in last year's budget negotiations, the union ran TV ads critical of its opponents.

Senate Republicans only grew more entrenched, refusing to give in to the union or its most-powerful legislative ally, Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp.

The contract was rejected. The final budget included $25 million to cover 75-cent raises for home-care workers, but no new benefits.

Consultant hired

Even before last year's fight was lost, SEIU leaders began trying to figure out how to soften opposition among Republicans. They hired Brett Bader, a prominent Republican consultant from Bellevue, to "open up some lines of communication" with the GOP, said SEIU spokesman Adam Glickman.

Bader said his goal was to convince union leaders that "not all Republicans have horns on their head."

"I think any group with a large membership that puts all its eggs in one basket and pursues a one-party strategy is being foolish," Bader said.

Last summer, David Rolf, president of SEIU Local 775, began sitting down with key Republicans and budget leaders to hear their concerns.

Aside from the fiscal concerns, many legislators worried that giving home-care workers a contract would essentially make them state employees and expose the state to liability for injuries to the workers and their clients.

So union leaders agreed to help make it clear in statute that home-care workers are not state employees. They also reduced their money demands. With the 75-cent raises already in place, union leaders agreed to a new contract that called for 50-cent raises in addition to the new health and workers'-comp benefits.

As this year's legislative session approached, things started going SEIU's way. With the economy on the mend, the state's revenue picture began to brighten.

Then, within a matter of weeks, both of the union's biggest foes announced they were leaving the Legislature. West resigned after being elected mayor of Spokane, a victory for which the SEIU probably deserves some credit. Eager to get West out of Olympia, the union last fall sent members door-to-door in the heavily Republican areas of his legislative district to remind people about the upcoming city election.

Rossi, meanwhile, decided to quit the Senate so he could focus full time on his campaign for governor.

From the outset this year, things were far more civil between the union and the Legislature.

Rolf said the departures of West and Rossi made the biggest difference. He said Republican leaders and Rossi's replacement as Senate budget chief, Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, Clark County, were more willing to work with the union.

With Senate Republicans in a less combative mood, Rolf said, the union didn't need to play rough this year. But lawmakers from both parties said it was the union's toned-down, bipartisan approach that cleared the way for an agreement on the contract.

"They reached out and said, 'What can we do to make this thing work?' " said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. "They were willing to give up some of the traditional immovable union positions in order to protect their members."

It also helped that a vast majority of legislators — including Zarelli and other Republican leaders — face re-election this year. It's no secret how much havoc the SEIU can create for a campaign. The union handed out more than $250,000 in campaign donations during the 2002 election and has built an aggressive get-out-the-vote machine.

It's also no secret that the union — which doubled in size when it organized the home-care workers — is heading into this year's election bigger and richer than ever.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com