OLYMPIA, Wash. – It took thousands of public employees rallying across Washington state at more than 100 locations over two days this May and June to urge state legislators to agree to a sensible budget and avert a shutdown of state services on July 1.
And they won.
Just before the stroke of midnight on June 30, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the new, biennial operating budget that funded AFSCME Council 28 members’ first pay raises in seven years, and holds the line on health care costs.
The budget deal averted a shutdown of state services, including the closure of all state parks, the end of most community supervision of dangerous criminals released from prison and the temporary layoff of 26,000 state employees – about half of the general government workforce.
Council 28 members worked all session with a wide array of activities to pressure the Republicans controlling the state Senate to finally do the right thing. That included the “Unity Breaks” and “Unity Rallies” staged simultaneously on two different days in every corner of the state to stop the possible furlough of half of state agency workers if there was no budget by June 30.
In the end, the Republicans’ proposals to roll back many key collective bargaining rights – proposals written by a conservative think tank – all failed, thanks to the public heat Council 28 members generated.
“Through our member education, our member lobby program, our coordinated statewide in-district actions, our calls, our emails, our constant pressure on the Legislature, we narrowly avoided a state government shutdown,” said April Sims, Council 28’s legislative and political action field coordinator.
With the budget, came the raises – 3 percent July 1 and 1.8 percent July 1, 2016. They were the first since 2008. For two of those years, state workers took 3 percent pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs. The budget also came with no increase to the percentage of health premiums they pay and no new surcharges.
All across the state AFSCME Strong-trained coaches and activists prepared their coworkers for the unity breaks days in advance by passing out flyers, stickers and T-shirts and gaining commitments from members to participate.
“The Unity Rallies are important because they show we do important work serving the citizens,” said Kellie O'Hair, a gardener at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of AFSCME Local 1488 who attended the June 18 “Unity Rally.”
“A lot of times it's not just the pay. We just love what we do,” O’Hair added. “Our goal is to be the best state workers we can be. But we need funding to do that.”