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Unions give Valley residents a loud voice in political races

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Every ballot counts in an election, and unions are showing they know how to get out the vote.

Few groups have the means to get involved in the political process more than labor unions. Unions in the Valley have different involvement at different levels of the election, with some giving endorsements to the highest offices while others have worked to garner support for local races.

Public education is often unionized and teachers at the Snoqualmie Valley School District are represented by the Snoqualmie Education Association (SEA), part of the statewide teacher's union group, the Washington Education Association (WEA).

"Education is the paramount duty of the state," said SEA President Art Galloway, a teacher at Mount Si High School. "We are one of the last real organized groups that is actively supporting public education."

On the federal and local state races, Galloway said the SEA has made no formal endorsement. With the statewide races, however, the SEA has fallen in line behind WEA. Galloway said the SEA and WEA will support "pro-education" candidates who will make education a top priority, and one of the closest statewide races this year is for state superintendent of public instruction. The WEA has endorsed Judith Billings over incumbent Terry Bergeson in the nonpartisan race.

"I think she [Billings] is just a little bit more in line with the education community," Galloway said.

Part of the reason the SEA and WEA support Billings, Galloway said, is her stance on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), a standardized test the state plans to require all students pass to graduate high school by the year 2008 (this year's freshmen class). Billings has lobbied to allow other ways for students to show proficiency before graduating.

"It doesn't make sense to have a single measure [of student achievement]," Galloway said. "We need to have many measures instead of one high-stakes test."

As far as state legislative candidates go, the SEA will only be endorsing the candidates who supported Initiatives-732 and 728, two education funding initiatives that won public support but petered out in Olympia after one budget cycle, which is two years.

The WEA has taken the same pro-education funding line with Initiative-884 (I-884) and Referendum 55. The WEA has backed I-884 since it would impose a 1-percent state sales tax that would go toward public education, and the group is hoping to help defeat Referendum 55, which would allow some public funding to go to charter schools.

Endorsements are one way of supporting a candidate, but financially supporting a candidate is a bit of a gray area. Unions are private nonprofit organizations that must adhere to certain spending rules under IRS law. Most unions have separate political action committees (PAC) that members can donate to so their dues do not go to political candidates. Galloway estimated that a third of all teachers in the SEA give money to the WEA's PAC.

Jami Lund, a project manager with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation's public policy think tank based in Olympia, said that union spending on politics can be convoluted. While some unions may say they don't spend union dues on political action, Lund said unions can spend money on other activities that could be construed as political action, such as communication and donated labor.

"Only 6 percent of teachers contribute to the WEA's PAC. Union officials know that they do not have voluntary support for their political activities, so they have strong incentive to understate their electioneering," Lund said in an e-mail.

While money is a coveted form of support, endorsements from unions still carry a lot of weight and are sought after by candidates. Steve Reno, the Snoqualmie firefighter who heads its union, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 4028, said this is the first year the Snoqualmie union has endorsed candidates.

"The bottom line is that it always comes back to the community," Reno said. "What is best for us is secondary."

The IAFF has endorsed John Kerry for president, but the 4028 has focused its energies on more local races. The 4028 invited candidates from the fifth district state legislative race to come to the Snoqualmie Fire Station for presentations. All three of the positions, two representatives and a senator, are up for election this year. Not all of the candidates came to the station for interviews, but 4028 made its endorsements, backing democratic challengers Barbara de Michele and Jeff Griffin for representative, and Kathy Huckabay for senator.

Reno said traffic and development issues were the most important to the union. The worse traffic gets, the harder it is for firefighters to make their way through town, and higher car volumes are always intertwined with development.

The Snoqualmie union has also been able to give some of the more obscure races a bit of visibility. For the commissioner of public lands, 4028 has endorsed democratic challenger Mike Cooper. Reno said Cooper's history as a firefighter gave him an edge over incumbent Doug Sutherland.

"He brings good public safety values to that position," Reno said.

The Snoqualmie firefighters have not been able to donate any money to the campaigns, but they have been able to donate time and have worked on signs for the state legislative candidates.

While a Snoqualmie firefighter may be part of a union endorsement, they are not required to vote or volunteer in line with the union. Reno said firefighters are free to support whom they want, but must do so without saying they represent the union as a whole. The union doesn't siphon out its support to different candidates and is a united front with endorsements.

"Either we are all behind something or we are not," Reno said.

Local grocers have ties to one of the largest unions in the nation, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which is part of the AFL-CIO. Employees of the QFC and Safeway in North Bend belong to UFCW locals, and those stores' meat-packing employees are represented by UFCW Local 81.

Because it is part of a larger union, the UFCW Local 81's endorsements come at the national level. Steve Conway, a spokesman for UFCW Local 81 President Mike Williams, said the biggest endorsement the UFCW gave was for democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. He said the nation's health care and economic problems have demonstrated that the Bush administration is anti-labor.

"This year there is very, very consistent unanimity throughout labor on the need to defeat George Bush," Conway said.

Local endorsements come through the union's COPEs (committee on political education). Like other unions, candidates are invited to the talk to local COPEs that, in turn, give their endorsements. These COPEs meet for regional and statewide meetings that determine broader support for candidates.

Within the union, endorsements are made through a democratic process and there is room for dissent, Conway said. Earlier this year, there could be no statewide support for governor because a two-thirds vote could not be reached for either Ron Sims or Christine Gregoire. After Sims lost in the primary, the union threw its support behind Gregoire.

Conway said the main purpose of the union COPEs is not endorsements, but education.

"The international union does an outstanding job of supplying information to our members as to the why of that endorsement," Conway said.

Union leaders said they represent not just their members, but their causes. The voice of many is always greater than the voice of one and unions know they can get a lot voices speaking in unison this fall.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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