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The underdog wins in Washington State

“We sometimes had eight meetings a day, every day, for three months straight. Sometimes we got to go home on the weekend.”— IR/Organizer Erik Seaberg

IVP-WS J. Tom Baca visits the Washington Capitol with Washington local business managers L-502’s Tracy Eixenberger and L-242’s Luke Lafley. From l. to r. Eixenberger, Mark Keffeler, Lafley, J. Tom Baca, Erik Seaberg, Mircha Vorobets and Trent Sorenson.

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WITH THE WINDOWS rolled up tight against the freezing Alaska winter, Organizer Mircha Vorobets and IR/Organizer Erik Seaberg watched snow ping against the car’s windshield, the signal bars on their mobile phones slowly dropping to one as Anchorage faded from view. But before they totally lost service on that mid-February afternoon, one call got through. It was IVP-WS J. Tom Baca with news that would upend their lives for the next three months.

“We’d just arrived in Alaska on a research trip when we got a call. ‘Stop! Drop everything! We need you in Washington tomorrow!’” Vorobets recalls.

That fateful phone call kicked-off what would be a monumental task influencing members of the Washington Statehouse to vote in favor of ESHB 1817. The bill, introduced to improve safety in refineries and petrochemical facilities, sought to require that outside contractors and subcontractors in the state employ workers who had graduated from state-approved apprenticeship programs. If passed, the new law would be a win for safety and a win for more Boilermaker man hours, as well as for other union building trades. The Boilermakers effort to pass the bill were funded through the Western States M.O.R.E. Work Investment Fund.

IVP-WS J. Tom Baca and IR Jim Cooksey, along with California State Building Trades President Robbie Hunter and California State Building Trades Legislative and Political Director Cesar Diaz, worked behind the scenes for years to set the stage for passage of the bill in Washington. A lot of the groundwork happened in California because of the building trades’ successful passage of SB 54—which the Washington bill mirrored.

Finally, after four years of preparation, it was showtime.

After landing in Washington, Vorobets, Seaberg and IR Mark Keffeler—with IR/Organizer Trent Sorensen coming in later to the fight—formed their plan of persuasion. All but Sorensen were Washington State graduate apprentices, which proved instrumental in forming relationships with lawmakers.

The opposition: Non-union owners, including the non-union side of Matrix, contractors and some small-business owners from Washington who were motivated to keep the status quo. The Boilermakers weren’t. This legislation was personal, especially for Vorobets, Seaberg and Keffeler who’d all seen men die while working in refineries. Protecting the lives of workers was utmost in the minds of everyone seeking the bill’s passage.

With the building trades on board, they took up the challenge of passing the bill with help from the Washington Building Trades Executive Secretary Mark Riker, Washington Building Trades Legislative and Political Director Neil Hartman, and lobbyist Luke Esser.

Most lawmakers had never heard of the Boilermakers union and had little knowledge of the bill. That didn’t deter the Boilermakers as they went to work in the House.

They started by forming personal relationships with lawmakers, having conversations about their kids and their pets and their passions. They shared what they learned and created a spreadsheet of personal info about lawmakers, and made flyers and one-pagers to leave with them. They met with members not once, not even twice but multiple times to ensure lawmakers were voting on the right side of history.

“We sometimes had eight meetings a day every day for three months straight,” Seaberg says. “Sometimes we got to go home on the weekend.”

They needed a “war room” to continue building their ever-evolving strategy. So, the group rented an office from the Operating Engineers. They pinned up a map of Washington legislative districts, a spreadsheet of legislators’ personal information and a schedule of planned legislative meetings.

The game constantly changed as they worked the lower chamber. A House member would be on board one day but flip the next. At one point during the three-month campaign, everyone got sick, forcing the group to the local pharmacy for meds to keep them working. The winter weather proved brutal more than once.

“Nothing there was easy,” Seaberg recalls. “Everything about it was hard.”

But neither sickness nor storms of winter could stop Boilermakers from their appointed rounds at the state capitol.

“Every two weeks there’d be a deadline for bills to come out of certain committees,” Vorobets says. “We studied the chairs and who sits on that committee, and we’d make appointments to convince them to vote for our bill.”

And convince they did. The bill passed the lower chamber on a 62 to 36 vote. Instead of taking a long weekend with their families to celebrate, the group simply got back to work, using their new, successful playbook to work their magic on Senate members. They had to work hard. Democrats had only an eight-vote lead in the upper chamber, and Democrats were their friend on this bill. Most of the time.

While gaining passage of the bill in the House, they’d learned lawmakers would cancel a face-to-face if someone in the meeting wasn’t from their district. They solved that problem by calling on their Boilermaker brothers and sisters in Washington.

“There were 15,000 people in the state that, at some point, had worked as a Boilermaker,” Vorobets says. “It didn’t matter if they were retired. Workers or pensioners, they could all vote.”

They could also be mobilized.

“Throughout this process we were text blasting Boilermakers to come to the capitol,” Seaberg says. “They’d also fill up the phone lines when we asked. We even shut down the switchboard a couple of times.”

As the bill made its way through committees in the Senate, the finish line inched closer. But when the day of the Senate vote finally dawned, it didn’t mean Boilermakers could rest. Lawmakers have been known to change a promised “yes” vote to a “no” without warning. And for every “yes” the group worked for, the opposition was pressuring a “no” just as hard. So the Boilermakers dug in to talk with as many Senate members as possible.

“We’d review the bill and refresh their memories,” Keffeler said. “But the opposition would also be doing a floor poll (determining how a member would vote). So we’d have to go and poll senators again.”

With the bill in line for a vote, the Boilermakers hovered near the Senate chamber doors, hoping for a positive outcome, watching senators and the people talking to them.

“We’d be eating pizza on the floor. We’d even share pizza with the opposition,” Vorobets remembers. “We stayed until midnight. But the bill didn’t go. They said it would go tomorrow.”

But the next day Doug Erickson, the ranking Republican of the body’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications committee, tacked on amendments to the bill. Seventy to be exact. To compare, the state budget only had 40.

“He tried to slow it down and stall it,” Vorobets says. “He sat up and talked on each amendment. Instead of 10 minutes on the floor, it was three hours.”

After a bit of showmanship, Erickson finally pulled the amendments.

The bill passed on a 29 to 16 vote.

The long hours, late nights, snow, sickness and missed weekends paid off with a huge win for union workers.

“We couldn’t have done it without them.”— IVP-WS J. Tom Baca

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” says IVP Baca. “I’d put these organizers up against any organizers in the world. Any team. And they’d beat them.”

The group of Boilermakers who’d arrived to persuade the Washington Legislature had little to no experience lobbying. They learned from Hartman and Esser. They learned in the trenches. They learned from their mistakes.

“This was all brand new for us,” Keffeler says. “This was a learning experience.”

One, they all agree, they’d do again.