WFSE Pandemic Response and Recovery

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Two years after the Janus decision, our union faced another test, this time in the form of a global pandemic.  

COVID-19 arrived in Washington state first, and WFSE members jumped into high gear to assist those facing unsafe working conditions and financial strain.  

We set the standard for what organized labor could accomplish during a pandemic, pushing back on furloughs and cuts, keeping our universities, medical facilities, and communities running, and winning important workplace protections that were then extended to workers across the state.  

By organizing on the ground and winning at the negotiating table, we made sure that our members didn’t have to choose between their safety and providing for their families. When workers on the frontlines didn’t have the personal protective equipment they needed, we organized and got it. In one instance, UW Medicine was slow to install protective glass on patient-facing areas, so our union went to the hardware store and built our own. 

Our members didn’t just fight for public health; they served as a financial lifeline. When Washington was hit with a historic surge in unemployment claims, WFSE members at the Employment Security Department worked the phones 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week to ensure workers got the help they needed.  

With a strong union at their back, Washington’s public workers met the crisis head on, helping  Washington achieve one of the lowest COVID fatality rates in the nation. 

Our members were rightly hailed as heroes. Commercials were made, airtime was bought, and billboards went up thanking our members and other frontline workers for sacrificing their safety for the rest of us.  

Then, suddenly, we found ourselves rowing against the current.  

Washington’s budget projections fell off a cliff. An $8.8 billion budget deficit was predicted. A chorus of voices including the Editorial Board of the Seattle Times and – you guessed it, anti-worker billionaires and their think tanks-- called on the governor to reopen our contracts, cancel previously negotiated raises scheduled for July 2020, and make ‘bold’ cuts to the services we provide. 

After putting our own safety and security on the line and losing some of our co-workers to the pandemic, we found ourselves having to hold the line for our jobs, families and communities. 

It’s true, the signs were dire for the economy. Economists warned that we were facing an economic catastrophe of unprecedented scale, a Great Depression-sized crisis. But beyond the obvious ethical problem with disinvesting in the very people and services that were helping Washington get through the pandemic – it didn’t make economic sense.  

As we learned during the Great Recession, reductions in government spending on wages and services actually hurt the economy. Budget cuts further depress consumer spending and make recessions worse. It was a mistake we could not repeat. 

Our members spoke up, successfully protecting our previously negotiated raises. Then, that Fall, it was time to negotiate our 2021-2023 contracts – not an easy thing to do when the numbers said we should be preparing for 30% workforce reductions. 

So we launched the largest educational campaign in our union’s history, the Put People First campaign. In dozens of virtual workshops held with members from across the state, participants learned how to communicate a vision for adequately funded jobs and a fair revenue system to elected officials and the public. 

Always a priority, the need for a fair tax structure that holds the mega-wealthy accountable became clearer than ever during the pandemic. While state revenue plunged, billionaire profits skyrocketed. And because Washington has the single most unfair tax system of any state in the nation, the majority of those profits would not go toward our jobs, our families, or our communities just when we needed them the most. 

The campaign worked. Against the odds, we managed to negotiate 2021-2023 contracts with no cuts – preserving yearly step increases and maintaining our healthcare costs. Preventing increases to healthcare was truly a historic achievement. In the past, much smaller economic crises had resulted in substantial increases. 

A few months later, when the economy began to recover and the worst-case economic scenario did not come to pass, we launched a campaign to reopen our contracts – not for cuts, but for a raise.  

6,000 WFSE members wrote letters to the Inslee administration calling for an investment in them and their work. We succeeded. The unprecedented mid-contract raise that went into effect in July of 2022 invested most heavily in lower wage earners who were most impacted by the pandemic. It also put us on solid footing to negotiate our next contract. 

Next, we launched our 2023-2025 contract campaign, #StrongWorksitesStrongContracts, to set Washington state on the right footing coming out of the pandemic.

We were in the midst of a 20-year staffing crisis that had been worsened by COVID-19. Significant pay disparities and workplace safety issues needed to be addressed. The pandemic had exposed gaping holes in our state’s safety net that needed to be mended with a fair compensation package. 


After months of negotiations, we won. The 2023-2025 compensation package that came about as a result was the largest in our union’s history. When it came time to call for funding for those contracts, new WFSE members got involved to push our contracts through the legislature. 71% of those who lobbied were doing so for the first time.  

We made it through the greatest challenge of our lifetimes and ensured a fair recovery from the pandemic. We did it together. 

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