WSLC’s virtual conference focuses on importance of the State Legislature meeting the pressing needs of Washington’s working families amid COVID
(Feb. 4, 2021) — Hundreds of union members and leaders from across the state gathered remotely Thursday for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO’s 2021 Virtual Legislative Conference. After hearing from and talking to their state legislators, conference participants emerged more united than ever to call on the Legislature the meet the pressing needs that working families are facing a full year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
WSLC President Larry Brown opened the conference by acknowledging the tremendous loss of life our state and nation have suffered amid the pandemic. Many of us have lost loved ones, friends, neighbors and union sisters, brothers and siblings to COVID-19. Many more have lost their jobs or lost income because of the economic fallout of the pandemic, he said, and it is for them — and for all workers in Washington — that legislative advocacy is so important right now.
“The reason we are here today — and the reason the theme for this conference is ‘Our Time Now’ — is because of the amazing essential workers of Washington who have persevered and helped our state weather this storm,” Brown said. “The hospital workers, the grocery store and warehouse employees, the educators, the building trades, farm workers, public safety employees, transit workers, the aerospace workers, and the many, many others who have put their health – and their lives — at risk to serve others. They are the reason we are here today. This pandemic has exposed the inequities they face and the unfairness rooted deep in our economy. Our state lawmakers need to understand that, for Washington’s working families, there is a renewed sense of urgency to address these inequities.” (See Brown’s full speech here.)
A team of labor lobbyists, led by the WSLC’s Legislative Director Sybill Hyppolite and Government Affairs Director Joe Kendo, outlined some of the priority issues in the WSLC’s 2021 Workers’ Recovery Agenda.
Lindsey Grad of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW described the Worker Protection Act (HB 1076) and why it would promote proper enforcement of existing labor standards. Mark Riker of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council explained the importance of bold transportation and infrastructure investments this year to help Washington’s economy grow its way out of the recession. And Sandra Toussaint of the Washington Federation of State Employees/AFSCME Council 28 described the state’s broken, upside-down tax system — where the poorest pay the most and the richest don’t pay their fair share — and the need for progressive revenue reform to not only maintain existing services, but to respond to urgent needs during the pandemic, including affordable child care.
Delegates also heard from the Chairs of the Senate and House labor committees, Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines) and Rep. Mike Sells (D-Everett).
Keiser, who served as WSLC Communications Director from 1981 to 2006, said it is always an honor and pleasure to address her labor family. She described the critical effort to maintain and improve benefits in Washington’s beleaguered unemployment insurance system. Keiser noted that the system has been not only a safety net for the many workers who’ve lost their jobs, but also it has also bolstered the state economy and small businesses by pumping billions of dollars into our communities.
Sells noted that the session’s first cutoff deadline for bills to pass out of policy committee was fast approaching on Feb. 15. Regarding the aforementioned Worker Protection Act, he said Republicans were preparing dozens of amendments to HB 1076 to try gum up the committee process and kill the bill. Sells said the committee is scheduled to take action on it Friday at 8 a.m., and recognizing the importance of the legislation, he was prepared to go all weekend if necessary to advance HB 1076.
UPDATE (Feb. 5) — HB 1076 advanced from the House Labopr and Commerce Committee on Friday!
Jamila Thomas, Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, also addressed the conference. A former WSLC Legislative Intern, she described the core labor values she learned working for the WSLC and with WFSE/AFSCME Council 28 as she began her career. She said those values have informed her work as a legislative policy advisor and as chief of staff to the House Speaker, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and now, the Governor.
But as always, the most important part of the WSLC Legislative Conference was attendees’ opportunity to meet with legislators from their districts to discuss these and other bills that unions are supporting this session. This involved a Herculean effort by WSLC Legislative Intern Laurel Poplack and the council’s entire support staff to organize Zoom meetings in all 49 districts with legislators and their aides.
WSLC Secretary Treasurer April Sims closed out the conference with a moving, heartfelt speech about the healing. She described her and her family’s experience becoming sick with COVID-19, and the perspective their recovery brought to how communities all across Washington are suffering and struggling.
“In crisis, our lives become even more centered around keeping ourselves and our families safe,” Sims said. “Safe from sickness, safe from falling behind on rent, safe from prejudice and hate. Facing a triple pandemic of COVID-19, economic insecurity, and the rising tide of white supremacy, it’s no wonder that healing has been on the minds of many these past few months.”
She concluded by emphasizing both the challenge and importance of labor’s work amid the continuing pandemic.
“We’ve spent time today talking about unity and solidarity,” Sims said. “But we can’t ignore how isolated many of us feel in our own separate corners of Washington. It can seem like the deep divisions we’re seeing exploited in this moment are felt in our own bodies, as caring for each other requires us to stay distanced from one another. But when we cannot safely link arms, we can still speak with one voice. Uniting to fight for policies that put working people first is a critical way to channel the anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty we feel in our own separate corners of Washington into building power for working people.” (See Sims’ full speech here.)