Washington Workers Union Flexes Muscle

Government workers in the state of Washington are being hit with a tough choice — if they want to keep their jobs, they have to join the union or pay a hefty union fee.

"I don't like being forced. I don't like being told either join the union or I lose my job," said state employee Sharon Mathews.

The Personnel Reform Act passed in 2002 gives managers more flexibility in hiring, firing and outsourcing. It also allowed the workers union to bargain directly with the governor on provisions of their contracts. After taking office this year, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire (search) gave state workers a raise and then gave the union the power to have any worker fired who didn't either join or fork over a representation fee of up to $45 per month.

"I think a lot of us jumped on the bandwagon out of fear," said another state employee, Kristie Hubble.

The measure also allows the union to challenge reforms in the law, including making it easier to fire bad workers or outsource jobs.

"It means that a rogue manager isn't going to be the final say. They've got a contract they can use as a weapon to beat back unfair treatment, unfair treatment as far as contracting out," said Tim Welch, director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The federation has nearly doubled its membership since Gregoire's changes. It's income also nearly doubled to what is now nearly $10 million. Officials say it's only fair that all workers join since all workers benefit from the federation's contract negotiations with the state.

Business representatives say they worry the union's increased political muscle will drive up already high labor costs.

"There will be increased political activity and they will have just by the sheer numbers of people involved in their union and by the share of dollars they'll receive there will be increased clout," said Dan Brunell of the Washington Business Association.

Union leaders say they're even-handed when it comes to political donations, but the numbers from the 2004 election tell a different story. Seventy-five percent of the union's candidate contributions went to Democrats. The union also gave $200,000 to the Democratic Governors Association and paid $250,000 to the state Democratic Party to underwrite the third vote count that finally put Gregoire into office.

Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Dan Springer.