Clock ticking on state labor talks

Unions, governor's team try to reach deal by Oct. 1

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OLYMPIA — Time may be running out on Gov. Chris Gregoire's labor negotiators if they hope to secure a contract with more than two dozen unions on pay and health benefits by Oct. 1.

The Washington Federation of State Employees went back to the table with Gregoire's labor team Wednesday and today at the Thurston County Fairgrounds near Lacey, and a top union leader says they aren't sure they'll get a deal. In one scenario state workers could end up working without a contract for a full year.

Greg Devereux, executive director for the union that represents the largest bloc of state employees (more than 37,000 public-sector workers) said Tuesday that the federation has asked for cost-of-living pay hikes in both years of the 2013-15 budget cycle — and that is still on the table. He declined to say more, explaining that he did not want to negotiate in the press.

But the two negotiation sessions planned this week are the last ones scheduled. "We have kept Friday open as well. I don't know whether we will need it or not," Devereux said.

That may not be enough time to avoid going into the 2013 legislative session without a contract. Devereux said the union needs 21 days to ratify a deal before the Oct. 1 statutory deadline for getting an agreement to the Office of Financial Management in time for its next two-year budget plan.

State budget director Marty Brown refused to talk about the contract negotiations -- or even acknowledge what Devereux said Tuesday: that the state is pushing for a deal on pay for public employees before addressing health care costs.

In past years, negotiations started with a deal on health care that locked in members of more than 25 unions that were part of a coalition for the purpose of settling health coverage questions.

"I know their initial proposal for health care. I don't know what their end position is. We are working to resolve the wage part of this and then we'll work on health care," Devereux said. "I don't want to bargain in the press, but we are still asking for COLAs in both years."

Devereux declined to give other specifics except to say that health care coalition talks held earlier in the summer "were not fruitful."

Both candidates for governor say they support collective bargaining rights, but Democrat Jay Inslee is clearly warmer to public employees and has their endorsement. Republican Rob McKenna has said he doesn't want Gregoire to lock in agreements that get in the way of full funding of K-12 school programs without raising taxes.

The governor's race may be affecting the contract talks, although Devereux said the talks could affect the outcome for governor. He explained that if the governor drives too hard a bargain by seeking more wage freezes after four years of no cost-of-living pay adjustments, she may inadvertently affect the election outcome by discouraging Democrat-friendly union workers from even voting -- in effect helping McKenna.

Washington saw its general-fund revenues rise from 2008 to 2012 by 7.87 percent yet state-employee pay was frozen or reduced by furloughs (except for step increases for a minority of workers). At the same time, workers' share of health care premiums rose to 15 percent and out-of-pocket costs also went up for many.