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Two of the state’s largest unions defend their relevance

"Unions are still a way to police companies and keep them honest," says a Machinists spokesman as he explains why employee organizations are as necessary now as they were decades ago. Here Boeing 787s are lined up at the assembly plant in Everett (AP file photo)

Unions have been in the shadows of several recent stories.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn threatens to stop a Whole Foods grocery store development in West Seattle claiming the chain doesn’t pay its workers enough.

A campaign letter, signed by female hotel workers and sent to female voters, seeks support for the incumbent mayor.

State Senator Michael Baumgartner readies a bill to make Washington a right-to-work state.

Boeing lays off 800 workers on the factory floor and shifts more engineering jobs out of the Puget Sound area.

Two of the largest unions in our state are coming out of the background to explain how they think their employee unions are still necessary today.

The International Association of Machinists District 751 and the Washington Education Association both think their unions are as relevant now as they were when first formed, as you would expect, but in different ways.

“Unions are still a way to police companies and keep them honest. You’ve agreed to do certain things in a contract and we’re going to hold you to it,” says Bryan Corliss with IAM 751.

He points to their most recent success in “holding Boeing to it.”

“We lobbied the federal government – the Department of Labor – to make sure that the 850 union members that are getting laid off at Boeing are eligible for Trade Act funds which says we’re going to give you a big pool of cash that you can spend over the next two years to retrain for a new career and we’ll pay you some living expenses while you do that,” he says.

Corliss has gotten into heated discussions with “union bashers” who think Washington should be a right-to-work state, or as he calls it “right to worse.”

“One in five Washington workers is represented by a union and we know from statistical data that union workers make 27 percent more than non-union workers for doing the exact same job,” he says.

“So if we want to go in and pick one out of five people in this state and give them all pay cuts that’s going to devastate the economy.”

Washington has among the highest union membership rate in the nation at almost 19 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Our state is behind New York with the highest rate of 23 percent, followed by Alaska at 22 percent and Hawaii’s 21 percent.

One of the larger unions in the state is the Washington Education Association representing about 82,000 educators.

The WEA’s new leader bristles at a commonly-held parent belief that the union protects lousy teachers.

“That would not be correct,” says Kim Mead, an Everett teacher who became president of the WEA last month. “Public educators really want to have the best in the classroom.”

One example of the progress the union is making toward improving education, she says, includes a new teacher evaluation system beginning this fall with the 2013-14 school year.

The new evaluation system stems from an education reform bill the legislature passed in the 2010 session.

The evaluations introduce a four-level ranking, compared with the current two-level evaluations. Most school districts only have satisfactory or unsatisfactory marks for teachers and principals.

Mead says there might be some “bumps along the way” implementing the evaluation system, but it ultimately will hold teachers more accountable. A part of the evaluation includes how well a teacher communicates with parents and interacts with students.

Evaluations will be more uniform throughout the state, she says, making it more difficult for those who aren’t performing well to stay within the education system.

“You can take a look at an individual teacher’s strengths as well as their weaknesses, instead of waiting until the very end when you have multiple areas maybe to work on,” Mead says. “We’ll be able to focus on one area to improve it for each teacher in the state.”


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