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Wednesday, February 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature 2006

Wal-Mart bill likely dead; unions upset with Chopp

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — A controversial bill aimed at forcing Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health-care benefits appears dead.

Despite a deluge of pressure from labor unions — and even some guarded last-minute support from one of the nation's largest grocery chains — Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp refused to bring the bill up for a vote before a key deadline Tuesday.

Chopp's chokehold on the bill angered union leaders.

Robby Stern, lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, called Chopp's stated reasons for stopping the bill "nonsensical" and speculated that the real reason was some sort of backroom deal with business.

"His arguments never hung together," Stern said. "Some commitment was made that we don't know about."

"I made no deal with anybody," Chopp, D-Seattle, replied later. "I've been consistent on this for months."

Unions are pushing so-called "Fair Share" legislation in more than two dozen states. The proposal here would require companies with 5,000 or more employees to put at least 9 percent of their payroll toward health benefits.

Chopp, a longtime labor ally, has said repeatedly that he doesn't think the legislation would do anything to provide health coverage to more people. He also contended the bill did not have enough votes to pass, though two-thirds of House Democrats signed a letter last week calling for a vote.

Some House members said Chopp also indicated he didn't want to allow a vote on a bill that would bring the wrath of businesses down on House Democrats during next fall's election.

"Frank is very careful about trying to keep the balance between business and labor," said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle.

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"Not going away"

Supporters said they weren't giving up.

"We are going to continue to fight this," said Dave Schmitz, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union Local 21. "It's not going away."

Nationwide, UFCW has been leading an all-out attack against Wal-Mart. The largest employer in the country, Wal-Mart has worked vigorously to keep unions out.

Wal-Mart lobbyists defend the company's health benefits and say the "Fair Share" legislation is purely political.

But union leaders and their allies say Wal-Mart is dragging down living standards for millions of workers, especially in the retail sector, by offering meager health benefits to its employees.

"Good employers are being squeezed ... by the irresponsible employers like Wal-Mart," Schmitz said.

Critics also say Wal-Mart is essentially shifting a huge burden to taxpayers because thousands of its employees are on government-subsidized health care.

With Democrats holding solid majorities in Olympia, "Fair Share" supporters had high hopes the measure would pass.

Not a Gregoire priority

While the bill had strong support from a majority of rank-and-file Democrats in both chambers, it was never a priority for Democratic legislative leaders or Gov. Christine Gregoire.

By the Legislature's own rules, nonbudget bills that did not clear either chamber by Tuesday are considered dead for the year.

"But nothing ever dies around here," said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, one of the bill's biggest supporters. "I've seen bills die on cut-off and then come back to life."

During the final week before Tuesday's deadline, unions and their allies tried a variety of tactics to persuade Chopp to release the bill.

Union leaders got what they thought might be a big break Monday when Safeway sent a letter to Chopp that raised many of the same arguments the "Fair Share" supporters have been making.

But Chopp didn't budge.

As a consolation to his disgruntled members, Chopp allowed them to bring up a related bill aimed at putting pressure on Wal-Mart.

That measure requires the state to prepare a public report that shows which companies have the most employees on state-subsidized health care.

Wal-Mart lobbyists support the legislation because they believe it will vindicate the company by showing all of the other businesses with employees on government health care.

The bill passed 94-3.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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