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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

SEIU Looms Large In Fight For Control Of Washington Legislature

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
SEIU 775 president David Rolf says the gains of unionized homecare workers are at stake in this year's Washington legislative elections.

The Service Employees International Union has invested more than $1 million in trying to help Democrats win control of the Washington legislature this year. That makes SEIU the single largest donor on the Democratic side.

So what does the union want in return for its investment?

David Rolf is the president of SEIU 775. If there’s a messiah in Washington state’s labor movement these days it’s him. He recently published a book on the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage. He’s also partnered with billionaire Nick Hanauer to promote the concept of portable benefits for a 21st century workforce.

SEIU 775 is a union that represents some 43,000 homecare workers in Washington.

“It used to be considered sort of an invisible para-professional, poverty-stricken workforce,” Rolf said.

But not anymore. In 2001 Washington voters approved a SEIU-funded initiative to allow homecare workers to unionize. Since then, the union has won higher wages and even a retirement package. This summer the union negotiated a new contract with the state that would give homecare workers a $15 an hour base wage by 2019.

That’s where the 2016 elections start to factor in. Lawmakers still need to ratify and fund that contract.

“What’s at stake for homecare and nursing home workers is whether some of the gains they’ve experienced over the last decade-and-a-half are safe or at risk,” Rolf said.


SOURCE: Washington state Public Disclosure Commission fundraising data. This graphic only reflects committees that have received $10,000 or more from SEIU this cycle. Graphic: KUOW/Abraham Epton

A Republican House?

You see, for the first time in nearly 20 years Republicans have a chance to take control of the Washington House. Rolf doesn’t want that to happen -- out of concern that Republicans might not fund his members’ new contract, but also because he views a Democratic House as a backstop now that the state Senate is in GOP hands.

“It’s always been able to prevent anything really bad from happening when it comes to workers’ rights or worker benefits,” Rolf said. “At times they’ve been able to help move the ball forward.”

So far this year, Rolf’s union, other SEIU locals and SEIU’s state council have contributed nearly $600,000 to help House Democrats retain control. And more than $300,000 to help Senate Democrats try to win back the majority.

Republicans say SEIU has concentrated influence in Washington.

“They have grown into a very large political powerhouse,” said Kevin Carns who heads the House Republican’s campaign efforts. He insisted SEIU has a hidden agenda.

“What they’re really looking to do is buy a caucus and get an income tax,” Carns said. “They’re looking for outcomes.”

‘Not on the table anywhere in the legislature'

In 2010, SEIU did back a failed initiative to enact a high-earners income tax in Washington. But Rolf denies a secret plan with Democrats to institute a state income tax. He does, however, say there’s a growing list of unmet needs and the state should look for new sources of revenue -- including a capital gains tax.

“If there are revenue sources and the votes are there for them, then we ought to look at that,” Rolf said.

For his part, Democratic Speaker of the House Frank Chopp also said there’s no secret income tax plan.

“No, no way,” Chopp said. “In fact the people of the state have also spoken very strongly against that particular idea and that’s simply not on the table anywhere in the legislature.”

Instead, Chopp explained SEIU’s generous support of his majority this way.

“We strongly support extending and expanding healthcare for people. That includes homecare for the elderly and disabled in their home so they don’t have to go into a nursing home,” Chopp said. “We have a long history of that. The Republicans don’t.”

SEIU homecare workers have endorsed several individual Republican candidates this year -- and have a tradition of doing so. But Rolf said the main focus this year is on electing what he calls “pro-worker” majorities in the state legislature.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Seattle Times

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."