Contract Out Our Jobs? We’ll Fight it and Win

Union activists at the Dept. of Transportation wouldn’t take no for an answer when their work was given to contractors. They won a $10k settlement.

You may have noticed signs reading “Slide Area” on the roads near your home or when traveling across the state. Landslides happen more frequently in Washington than almost anywhere else in the county.

Each landslide poses a threat to the roads, property, and people’s lives.

In the middle of the night in April 2019, a rockslide blocked a section of State Route 17 north of Tri-Cities.

Highway maintenance workers from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) were on the scene flagging traffic and making repairs to the highway for 48 hours.

Then WSDOT management, without warning or explanation, pulled the maintenance crew off the job and replaced them with contractors.

The state contracting out public employees’ work is an ongoing issue. Sometimes contracting out happens for agreeable reasons, such as workload or the need for special expertise. But sometimes we don’t agree on the reasons or impacts, and that’s why we bargain with the employer.

Our union contract limits the state’s ability to outsource, and requires the state to give advance notice for the opportunity to bargain when a job is going to be contracted out. But sometimes employers don’t follow the rules.

“When I found out that contractors had taken over, I started asking a lot of questions,” said WFSE Local 1291 President Chris Morris, a maintenance worker who was there the night of the rockslide.

“Basically, I asked them, ‘Why are you taking work away from us?’ We had the ability to perform the work. WSDOT had access to the equipment needed for the job.”

In the two years since becoming local president, Chris has tried to reverse an erosion of he and his co-workers’ rights. Before he stepped into a leadership position, grievances were rare. There was a feeling that management didn’t respect them, that they didn’t have a voice on the job.

So Chris and Local 1291 Vice President Eric Smucker filed a grievance.

They knew that WFSE members had won a similar case in the past, and submitted information requests to WSDOT so they could prove it, but WSDOT just sent them back random, seemingly unrelated information.

“Throughout all of this, they were treating us like it wasn’t important, like we should just be thankful that we have jobs,” Chris said.

Then WFSE Council Reps found what they were looking for:

In two cases in the previous three years, WSDOT had given notice for the opportunity to bargain who would do union work when the rest of the jobs were being done by contractors. It proved the precedent that Chris and Eric knew existed, but WSDOT had denied. 

Chris, Eric and the Local 1291 Executive Board made the decision to fight to the end.

“We decided we were going to get everything or nothing and make a statement,” Chris said.

WSDOT offered a $2500 settlement when they realized the case wasn’t getting dropped, but Chris and Eric pushed for more.

Now WSDOT was willing to settle for $5K.

Chris and Eric then asked for future preference for state employees in similar situations where contracting might happen, and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by WSDOT.

WSDOT wasn’t willing to grant future preference, but they raised their offer again, to $10k.

That was good enough. $10k equaled the total for how many members would have been working, how much overtime they would have been paid for the contracted work, plus a few thousand dollars for the trouble. 

 “Yeah, I got some negative feedback,” Chris said. “My superintendent didn’t like the way we were doing business.

"I just said, ‘This isn’t anything personal.’ It’s about keeping the employer in check.

"You have to keep digging, remain as professional as possible, and keep getting more answers. They don’t have the power to do anything they want. You know what’s right, so you have to keep fighting.”

Regardless of how long management has abused their power, as a union we can fight them and win.

The highway maintenance workers at the Pasco Maintenance Shed proved that. It may take some time, but in the end we can prevail.

Not a WFSE Member? Join the nearly 47,000 public servants across Washington in speaking up for our jobs, families and communities. Join today.