How a small town council routed the union busters

SEQUIM, Wa. — The Sequim City Council voted unanimously Sept. 8 to kill two pending “Right to Work” (for less) ballot propositions, condemning them as “grossly invalid” and a flagrant violation of state law.

The action came during a regular meeting of the council in the Clallam Transit Center packed with union members and other foes of union busting.

A handful of sponsors of the two anti-union measures were also present. Prop 1 would have explicitly terminated the right to strike and make union membership and payment of union dues “voluntary.” (Union membership is already voluntary.) Prop 2 would require that union negotiations with the city be conducted in public. Of Sequim’s 73 employees, 50 are union members represented mostly by the Teamsters Union.

Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie told the council, “Nothing has changed my mind. These proposed initiatives do not meet the requirements…. of state statutes. They put the city at some risk of unfair labor practices…”

Freedom Foundation agents, most of them from Olympia, had collected a few hundred signatures on Prop 1 and Prop 2. A representative of the Olympia-based Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) told the council that it had only two choices, either approve the measures themselves or put them on the November 4 ballot.

To intimidate the council, IRI Washington State Director Shawn Newman announced two days before the meeting that their institute will sue the city of Sequim to force the measures onto the ballot.

Newman and IRI are close allies of the Freedom Foundation and of Tim Eyman, the ultra-right hustler who has become a millionaire by running professional signature gathering efforts to place rightwing extremist initiatives on the Washington State ballot.

But Ritchie told the council they could “opt for the third alternative” – rejecting the two measures themselves and also excluding them from the ballot.

Councilman Ted Miller then offered a motion to kill the propositions, telling his colleagues, “It’s hard to come up with an initiative that violates more statutes…They are grossly invalid.”

The mayor called the vote. It was unanimous. Even the lone rightwing member of the council cast his vote to kill the measures.

Before the City Council meeting, more than 50 foes of Prop 1 and Prop 2 stood outside the Transit Center adjacent to the construction site where union workers are constructing the new City Hall.

Many in the picketline were linemen of the Public Utility District (PUD), the publicly owned electric utility that supplies power to Clallam County. The workers are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 997 that negotiated for 16 months before finally winning a modest pay raise. Others in the crowd were members of Clallam County MoveOn, and other union supporters.

They held signs that proclaimed “No Union busting in Sequim” and “Koch Brothers Go Home.”  They chanted “Union busting is disgusting.”

During the public comment period, Sam Woods, co-chair of Clallam County MoveOn, himself a disabled member of IBEW, told the council,  “For outside groups to come in here and try to subjugate the citizens of this city to the billionaires back in Wichita, Kansas or in Olympia, it offends me.”

Karen Parker, a hospice nurse and a Sequim resident, said, “These measures are a power grab by a rightwing outfit not based in Sequim…. I do not want to be used as a political pawn.”

Proponents of the two union busting propositions denounced “union bosses” who, they claimed, are driving towns like Sequim into bankruptcy with exorbitant wages, and defined pensions. One speaker branded opponents of the anti-union measures as “communist sympathizers” and slammed “unemployment checks” as “nothing more than taking from one group and giving to another.”

But Rex Habner, a working lineman for PUD who is paid $277 monthly for leading his union local, told the council, “I am the President and Business Manager of IBEW Local 997. I negotiate contracts. I’m a full time lineman. I’m the ‘Big Boss’ you just heard about.”

The aim of these union-busting measures, he said, “is to gain a greater chokehold on the people who work in the city, to lower their standard of living.”

The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation is linked to the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bankrolled by the oil billionaire Koch Brothers.  At its secretive annual meeting in Dallas, last month, ALEC launched a spinoff, The American City-County Exchange (ACCE) that seeks to railroad through towns and counties union busting measures and other profit-driven measures like those in Sequim. Similar measures are pending in the towns of Shelton and Lake Chelan.

Habner told the World the Sequim council vote is a “win.” He warned, however, that Sequim still has a union-busting lawsuit hanging over its head.

“They’ll be back. We have to be ready.” He added, “It goes back to the Koch Brothers…. The more little cities they can get to approve these anti-union measures, the more pressure they can put on Olympia (the State capital) to enact Right to Work (for less)” for the entire State of Washington.

Sept. 11 update: Tim Wheeler writes, “The city commissioners of the town of Shelton also voted unanimously to kill two anti-union propositions identical to the ones rejected by the Sequim City Council. And in the town of Chelan, east of the Cascades, dominated by the Republicans, the Freedom Foundation linked to the Koch Brothers could not collect enough signatures to put the ‘Right to Work (for less)’ propositions on the ballot. Three strikes and you’re OUT!”

Photo: Tim Wheeler/PW


Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.