Many state workers are getting the biggest raises they've seen in nearly two decades — maybe the biggest ever — under new contracts negotiated by Gov. Christine Gregoire's office and approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Thousands of workers are getting double-digit increases. Some raises exceed 25 percent. In all, increases in salaries and benefits for some 111,000 state workers will cost nearly $1.6 billion in state, federal and other funds over the next two years.
The state's surging economy made the raises possible. But they're also a testament to the growing clout of the state's public-employee unions.
Since winning broad new collective-bargaining powers from the Legislature in recent years, the largest state-worker unions have more than doubled in size and reaped millions of dollars in additional dues.
That's enabled the biggest state-worker unions to hire more lobbyists and lawyers, boost grass-roots lobbying, beef up field operations and pour tens of thousands more dollars into political campaigns, mostly for Democrats.
And how did they convince the Democrats to give them all this? The old-fashioned way, they bought it:
Gregoire's political opponents are nervous about what they see as a mutual back-scratching arrangement between the unions and their Democratic allies.
"It's a perfect machine to generate millions of dollars for her re-election," said J. Vander Stoep, an attorney and close political adviser to Republican Dino Rossi, who narrowly lost to Gregoire in the 2004 governor's race. "They are building something that conceivably can never be undone — at taxpayer expense."
....In 2004, the Federation spent nearly $640,000 on lobbying and campaigns, much of it to help Gregoire win the closest governor's race in state history.
On top of that, the union's national organization — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — gave $250,000 to the state Democratic Party to help pay for the final hand recount in the governor's election. That recount gave Gregoire her 129-vote victory over Rossi.
The national federation group was also by far the biggest contributor that year to the national Democratic Governors Association. The union gave more than $2.3 million to the governors association, which donated more than $2.5 million to the state Democratic Party for the governor's race.
The SEIU, meanwhile, has become one of the state's biggest political spenders. The union spent well over $2 million in the 2004 election, much of it to help Gregoire defeat Rossi, a former state senator who opposed the collective-bargaining laws and state-worker pay increases in the Legislature.