Labor Comes A-Courting Bob Ferguson


Attorney General Bob Ferguson gave the first major address of his bid for governor this week. The speech itself was what you might expect. There was bragging about his mostly successful battles with the Trump Administration and some hilariously stereotypical PNW virtue-signaling.¹

For us, it was where he chose to give his speech that seems newsworthy: the annual convention of the Washington State Labor Council. The council – part of the AFL/CIO, among the nation’s largest labor organizations –  is an umbrella organization for more than 600 locals and councils representing more than 500,000 workers statewide. That’s a lot of votes on the hoof, so it’s a natural draw for politicians. 

But the fact that the council gave Ferguson a prime speaking spot speaks volumes. Broadly speaking, unions care about two sets of things: a) better pay, benefits, and working conditions for their members, b) organizing more workplaces to bring in more members. That’s why labor – especially public sector labor² – is consistently the biggest player, money-wise – in Washington politics. Bigger than Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and Big Oil, combined. The state, both directly and indirectly via spending on education, highways, and other public projects, is a giant employer of union labor.

For a significant percentage of the labor council’s workers, this was essentially an interview with a potential boss because the money to pay their wages and benefits comes from the state.

Working conditions? In many cases, the unions’ negotiators will be looking across the bargaining table at the governor’s staff. Even more labor-adjacent policy that touches local government and private-sector workers happens in the Legislature and the budgeting process, where the governor has an outsized role. That makes those unions passionately interested in who gets elected next fall and how that person governs. 

Under Gov. Jay Inslee and a Legislature increasingly dominated by labor-friendly Democrats, unions have scored major wins in recent years, including big pay raises included in the budget this year; the long-term care tax and the capital gains tax, and job protections and benefits for gig workers. They’d like to keep winning.

One of the largest unions under the council’s umbrella is the Washington Federation of State Employees, representing some 47,000 employees of state agencies. Two separate unions under the council’s umbrella represent workers on the Washington State Ferries. The American Federation of Teachers represents educators whose money comes overwhelmingly from the state. Even the United Auto Workers here represent not people who make cars, but somewhat oddly, academic student workers at the University of Washington. 

For Ferguson, labor support means money, manpower, and endorsements that will signal to many voters that he supports folks who work for a living. He’s already got a list of union endorsements prominently displayed on his website. Many others haven’t yet officially jumped on board, but expect them to fall in line. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who was the first to challenge Ferguson’s status as front-runner was relegated to a lesser speaking slot at the convention. 

 The two leading candidates to take over Ferguson’s current job – state Sen. Manka Dhingra and former U.S. Attorney Nick Brown, both Democrats, are slated for Thursday morning. 

Perhaps most interesting in the council’s convention agenda is who was left out. Neither state Sen. Mark Mullet, the other prominent Democrat in the governor’s race, nor former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, the leading Republican were scheduled to appear. We’re told Mullet, who has frequently tangled with organized labor³ in the Legislature, was not invited. Such events are typically a no-fly zone for Republicans. 

Recommended Reading: Early Congressional money

Jerry Cornfield over at the Washington State Standard has a roundup of the most recent Federal Elections Commission campaign finance filings for the state’s U.S. House members and their potential challengers. 

The biggest takeaway is that first-term Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez has a big lead on Joe Kent, the MAGA Republican she beat last year to flip Southwest Washington’s 3rd District to the Democrats. Incumbency is a huge advantage in hard-money fundraising for Congressional campaigns because many institutional donors give only to incumbents. 

But the big money in that race will come in the former of independent super-PAC spending because the district is one of just a handful in the country that are winnable by either party. Democrats spent sparingly on Perez last time around because she looked like kind of a longshot even after Kent bounced GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary. Expect Democratic PACs to spend big to help her keep it this time around. 

The interesting question will be whether Kent, who wasn’t beloved by the Republican establishment even before he cost them the seat last year, will draw any money from that quarter. He’d be kind of a problem in the caucus and the GOP moneymen might be reluctant to send good money after bad. Also TBD is whether Kent gets an easy ride in the primary or draws a Republican opponent, perhaps even JHB herself. 


  1. Dude drives a 20-year-old Subaru, which seems a tad performative. Wonder how he’s going to deal with the security detail and the fancy SUVs that come with the governor’s mansion.

2. Two of the largest labor players in state politics, the Washington Education Association, which represents most of the state’s teachers, and SEIU 775, the powerful long-term care workers union, are part of the labor council.

3. Public-sector labor took a hard swing at Mullet in 2020 over his opposition to the long-term care tax, backing a union nurse against him in his reelection campaign. They barely missed. 

This article first appeared in the author’s political website, The Washington Observer.

Paul Queary
Paul Queary
Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.


  1. -Interesting that the labor folks didn’t see fit to invite Mark Mullet or Dave Reichert. I guess being inclusive isn’t important to them. Maybe it was just an inequity that was based on unconscious bias. Regardless, those that were invited were privileged. Apparently, the labor elites have already made up their minds and their chosen candidate demonstrated that he can check off all the stereotypical PNW virtue-signaling boxes for them. Clearly, h’e’s organic and sustainable as he grew up through the party compost and has been regularly renewing his quest for the Governor’s mansion…


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