The Politics of the Dole

WASHINGTON'S JOB market is a jungle, ruled by our very own King Kong—Boeing. Last week, once again, Washington had the highest unemployment rate in the country—7.4 percent compared to a national average of 5.6 percent—and it has everything to do with the Lazy B's declining fortunes.

I was unemployed once, and I might lose my job again someday. (If anybody hears any rumors about weekly-newspaper consolidation, let me know right away.) I want to keep our system of unemployment insurance strong and healthy, not only because I might need it again but also because there are a lot of other Washingtonians who need it right now. The best way to ensure that King Kong doesn't rip up the banana tree that feeds the unemployed is to vote yes on Referendum 53.

Washington has one of the best systems of unemployment insurance in the nation. We pay benefits for 30 weeks; most states pay only 26. The dole pays better here, too. The range of unemployment benefits is based on the average weekly wage in Washington, and that is higher than in many states. Our unemployment scale goes from a minimum of $107 a week to a maximum of $496. Hawaii's minimum is $5, Louisiana's $10. Best of all, Washington's unemployment benefits are 100 percent employer-financed. While that's true in most states, it's not true in all of them.

Naturally, employers don't like how relatively generous unemployment benefits are in Washington. Imagine the cost to Boeing, which laid off 15,500 workers in Washington last year. Boeing is also the company with the political clout to go to Olympia and dismantle the system, one legislator at a time.

Fortunately, labor unions have serious political muscle of their own, and they have been using it to look after all workers' interests. In fact, the strength of Washington's unemployment system is one of the many benefits of having a highly unionized state.

The fight in the state Legislature over the unemployment system has had a couple of fronts. One has been the struggle between labor and management over the system as a whole. As state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, describes it, "Everybody wanted to take it out of labor's hide." Fortunately, the main bout in recent years has featured business interests squaring off against one another. Under the crazy, complicated formula that determines how much employers pay into the unemployment system for each of their workers, Boeing, big retailers like Nordstrom, farmers, restaurant owners, and others say they have been subsidizing builders and developers. The builders, who have a powerhouse political group of their own in the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), don't really deny this. They just like to change the subject and scream about the "extreme costs and liberal benefits" in the unemployment system itself. Translation: Don't make us pay our fair share; cut benefits instead.

This past legislative session, big business and big labor cut a deal: The maximum in unemployment benefits was frozen until 2004, and the costs in the system were shifted so that the builders and developers pay more, while Boeing and its allies pay less. The clear advantage from a worker's point of view is that the law keeps Boeing and the majority of the business community mollified but doesn't take drastic benefit cuts to do so. Everyone in Olympia was shocked when Boeing and labor showed up hand in hand pushing this reform. "No one was more stunned than I when they did it," says Prentice, who is chair of the Labor and Commerce Committee.

The BIAW didn't take it lying down. They are furious that a deal was cut that hurts them. Their revenge? Referendum 53. They spent big money to collect signatures to put this new referendum on the ballot. The BIAW is very clear about their intention. If they can strike down this law, they want to "reduce the costs to the system and make Washington more competitive." Translation: Cut business taxes by going after the unemployed.

Don't let them get away with it. Affirm the new law—vote "yes."


We're having a party. Come on down and listen to me and my pals—Joni Balter from The Seattle Times, Susan Paynter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and KUOW-FM's Steve Scher—talk about this year's election. We'll debate the monorail, the proposed new tax on gasoline to build roads, and those swinging Supreme Court candidates. There will be plenty of time for audience members to present their points of view and grill us about ours. Like any good party, it's free.

Seattle Weekly's Election Forum: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Pioneer Square, 206-467-4366.

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