Applause erupted from the packed quarters of King County Water District 19 office last week after commissioners approved a union contract for district waterworks operators.
The euphoric reaction to the decision on Tuesday, Jan. 14 came after the three-member commission agreed to go into a closed session to discuss the contract — something that was not expected to be finalized that night until WD19 operators and their allies showed up to the meeting in full force.
The decision caps months of negotiations between the district and its operators to become unionized, for the first time, under the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 302.
For Dominic Jovanovich, an island resident and shop steward for WD19, the commissioner’s decision is a significant one.
“It was definitely tense at first, but we knew our supporters would come out for us and show solidarity because we know that organized labor is strong together,” he said. “We were happy the board made the right decision and we’re excited to move forward.”
While Jovanovich believes in the mantra “let bygones be bygones” and wants to look ahead in his relationship with the district, “it’s our responsibility as workers to take our own actions to make sure our families are taken care of.”
Margie Englund, business negotiations representative for IUOE Local 302, said she was happy with the outcome.
“We were very pleased that they took the time to adjourn into a [closed] session and then come back and make a decision,” Englund said. “We just didn’t want there to be delays. We had been negotiating this for the better part of the year and we wanted to make sure … it wasn’t going to go on and on and on.”
Commissioner Bob Powell, chairman of the Water District 19 board, told The Beachcomber the contract increases the district’s total expenses by approximately 6%.
“While the exact amount of the rate increase is yet to be determined, and must be approved by the board, it’s likely to be about that amount,” he wrote in an email.
He added, “I’m glad we approved the contract. Unions are key to democracy and social justice. Some in our community may object to the cost increase, but it’s a price we must pay to continue to enjoy the benefits of democracy as we know it.”
The district’s General Manager, Jim McRae, told The Beachcomber the contract is 20 articles long, covering 47 subject areas that were part of the negotiations. Among them is the operators’ wage structure. McRae said the new structure will “reward” them as they go through their profession’s certification process and also increase the stipend they receive for on-call work. McRae said the district operates 24/7 and one operator is always on call.
Vacation, health and other benefits will remain the same as before in this newly agreed-to contract, McRae said.
District staff are currently working to revise each operator’s wage rate to reflect the contract. The changes will be retroactive to Jan. 1.
Negotiations to unionize
Jovanovich said it was mid-2019 when waterworks operators approached the union.
“It’s hard for working-class people to live here on the island, if not impossible anymore,” he said. “We’re just trying to get a little more to live.”
In a June 4 letter to the editor of The Beachcomber, Bryan Raby, a union organizer for IUOE Local 302, announced that it was in contract negotiations with the district. Among the sentiments he expressed was that “so far, our meetings have been very productive and we for them to continue this way throughout the entire process.”
Raby referred questions from The Beachcomber to Englund, who agreed negotiations had gone the way Raby characterized them in the letter — but as time when on, there were some hiccups.
“We got to the end of negotiations and we were getting to the point where we were getting ready to complete the agreement. They had brought in an attorney to talk to us. I think that’s where things got slowed down a little bit,” Englund said. “Then, the attorney was out of the picture and that’s when we were hopeful that everything was just going to go forward as we hoped.”
According to Jovanovich, the contract was ratified by the union in early December and commissioners were given the opportunity to examine it. He said district operators were “given every assurance that the board would ratify the contract the same way the union did — in good faith.”
Englund said last Thursday, she and WD19 operators received an email from the district assuring them the commissioners would be voting on the contract on Jan. 14.
“Then we heard on Monday the board was wavering. That caused us some concern because we were expecting to go in there and have a nice vote of approval,” she said. “That’s when the community came out …. We just wanted to make sure the process stayed on track as it has been laid out.”
In an email to The Beachcomber, commissioner Bob Powell laid out a different timeline of events the complete package was presented to the board too late to consider the financial impact at the Dec. 10 meeting.
“The board was concerned the increased cost was greater than anticipated, and that our accountability to District customers demanded a counter-proposal,” he wrote.
That is why, following a closed session discussion in a special meeting on Jan. 7, the board voted to direct district General Manager Jim McRae to negotiate a cost reduction. Because there was no new information to discuss as of Jan. 14, the contract was not on the agenda, Powell said. He went on to comment on how that decision impacted the tenor of that public meeting.
“The board was advised it had the legal right to request changes to reduce the burden on District customers but was not advised regarding how that request would be perceived,” Powell wrote. “In hindsight that was unhelpful advice.”
A tense meeting
Near the start of the meeting, Powell said a vote on the contract that night was “not likely,” but Jovanovich pressed them, saying workers and union representatives were told by the district a vote would in fact happen — and that it would be voted down.
From there, the board and people familiar with talks disagreed over what happened during negotiations, whether they were over and if it was time to ratify the contract.
“We accepted your offer and now … we’re done negotiating. It’s ratification time, it’s implementation time,” Englund told commissioners.
When a community member accused the board of engaging in a “stall tactic,” Powell responded, “that’s uncalled for.” He later noted how unhappy people seemed at the meeting and defended the commissioners and their stance on unions.
“The three of us board members are members of the Vashon community and customers of district 19. … I’d like to think we’re all here on the same side,” Powell said. “I have a fundamental view about unions in society, that unions are what made America great.”
When it comes to contract negotiations, he said, “we’re hung up on the process.”
“None of the board or administrative staff at the water district have dealt with this process before … we’re doing it under professional legal advice, among other considerations,” Powell said. “Communication between the board and the staff and our outside representatives maybe haven’t been perfect.”
A few minutes later, the board went into closed session and emerged more than a half-hour later announcing it intended to vote.
“I think we all agree that we’ve heard the audience that it’s important to honor the commitments we made the negotiations and we intend to,” commissioner Mike Weller said.
Jovanovich told The Beachcomber he was happy the board changed its tune.
“It might be easy for the board just to see a crew of workers, but they have to realize we’re apart of the larger community and we’re not separate from them,” he said.
It wasn’t just waterworks operators who believed, like Jovanovich, that they should unionize. The Jan. 14 meeting also saw a room full of customers and other union members, including Richard Foulkes, a retired union truck driver who has lived on the island since 1974.
After the meeting, Foulkes told The Beachcomber he was “very happy that the board decided the best thing for the employees was to ratify the contract.”
“They live in this community and they are obligated to take care of their employees,” he said, referring to the commissioners.
Benefits of unionization
Englund said the contract is intended to provide operators “good working conditions” and “start to attract people that would stay here on the island.”
“That was the point of the contract the whole time,” she said.
Englund said before unionization, operators were employees at-will.
“They could be terminated; they could be moved; their hours could be changed on any given day. Basically, what the contract does is just create some rules around their employment conditions,” she said.
Now that contractors in WD19 are part of the union, Jovanovich said it’s going to give workers “an economic future.”
“Our first responsibility as operators is to the public — to make safe and pleasant drinking water, and this union contract will help us to become more economically stable,” Jovanovich said. “There is an economic root to everything and if we can’t afford to live, we sure can’t afford to come to work.”
Though WD19 was not unionized before this year, Jovanovich, who has been a district employee for almost two years, said for the most part, workers like the management and it’s usually “a pleasant place to be.”
“But there were some issues that were not being addressed and we’ve addressed them and overcome them now,” he said. “We’re humans; we’re not just another commodity. We have wants and needs and we have families. You can’t say the same thing about a bag of concrete.”
Jovanovich believes the union will “help us achieve a better quality of life for us and our family, and for future generations.”
Englund said the contract will also benefit Water District 19 as a whole, helping it attract and retain good operators. Becoming a water operator involves a rigorous certification process.
“At Water District 19, the operators need to have a Level 2 certification. Those are not easy to come by,” Englund said. “They were having a hard time attracting people and bringing them in with the qualifications. One of the reasons was they weren’t paying them enough to bring them in and keep them there. We think that … we raised the wages enough to make it pretty attractive for somebody to come in.”