Labor Relations

Almost all public employees in Washington – including most City of Bellingham employees – have a legal right to form unions or associations and collectively bargain with their employers.  A city cannot change wages, hours or working conditions for union members without bargaining these issues with them.

The City of Bellingham enjoys a collaborative working relationship with its employees and the labor groups that represent them. Approximately 85-90% of City employees are represented by one of nine active labor unions.  

Washington State law governing these relationships, the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act (RCW 41.56), is a complex and detailed set of rules, along with  procedures to resolve collective bargaining disputes between represented employees and their employers. State labor laws for public employees differ significantly in some key areas from labor laws that apply to private sector jobs, including the right for supervisors and managers to bargain collectively.

Unlike private sector employers, most cities have a large percentage of their personnel covered by union contracts. This extensive representation has historically been a measure to protect against political patronage or “loyalty tests”, and to assure continuity of critical public health, safety and other essential services despite leadership changes that can occur with each election cycle. Public employees are doing the public’s work, and collective bargaining allows for a more equitable environment in which public employees are beholden to their ultimate shareholders – members of the public – rather than the individuals and/or elected officials who supervise them.

Collective bargaining rights

Employee rights under the laws of the State of Washington include:

  • A right to form, join or assist employee organizations (unions);
  • A right to bargain through an organization chosen by a majority of the employees in an appropriate group of classifications or positions (bargaining unit);
  • A right to refuse to pay union dues or fees unless the employer and the union chosen by a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit agree to a “union security” provision;
  • A right of non-association allowing employees with religious beliefs against union membership to make alternative payments instead of paying union dues.

Certain types of conduct are prohibited by Washington state law and rules designed to protect employees in the free exercise of their rights. It is unlawful for:

  • An employer to deal directly with employees in a bargaining unit that has chosen an organization as its exclusive bargaining representative;
  • An employer to involve itself in the internal affairs of any union or to set up or show a preference for a particular union;
  • An employer to discharge or otherwise discriminate against employees (or for a union to ask an employer to discriminate in reprisal for filing charges or giving testimony), or to encourage or discourage exercise of collective bargaining rights under state law;
  • An employer or union to threaten public employees with reprisals (loss of jobs or benefits) or force (physical violence), or to promise benefit (bribes), to influence employees in the exercise of their collective bargaining rights under state law;
  • An employer or union to fail or refuse to bargain, or to act in bad faith, in collective bargaining concerning the wages, hours or working conditions of bargaining unit employees;
  • An employer or union to implement any changes of employee wages, hours or working conditions, unless there has been notice and bargaining.  

Washington state laws do not expressly grant any public employees the right to strike, and some state laws expressly prohibit strikes by public employees. This is different from the rights of private sector employees who have a right to strike under federal laws.  

A state agency, the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), regulates the relationships between public employers and their employees concerning issues like union representation and unfair labor practices. The role of the PERC parallels, for public sector employment in Washington State, the role of the National Labor Relations Board for private sector employment.

Unions representing City of Bellingham employees

Guild of Pacific Northwest Employees, Local 1937

  • General Non-Uniformed clerical and laborers

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

  • Librarians AFSCME 114L
  • Fire and Emergency Medical Service Dispatch: AFSCME 114F

What-Comm Guild Public Safety Dispatch

International Association of Firefighters (IAFF)

  • General Firefighters and Paramedics IAFF 106
  • Fire Staff Officers IAFF 106S

Bellingham Labor Committee of the Fraternal Order of Police Matt Herzog Memorial Lodge #24

Police Guild

Teamsters Supervisory and Professional Unit 231

More information