Corrections facility workers rally in Olympia ahead of session

And now, a dispatch from Lucas Wiseman, The Columbian’s new intern covering the 2013 Washington Legislature:

OLYMPIA — Six Clark County residents on Thursday morning helped protest against what they say are poor safety conditions for prison employees, shouting “Teamster Power” and “Interest Arbitration Now” on the capitol campus.

Larch Corrections Center employee Sidney Clark, a member of the Teamster Local 117 Union, was one of those six. He has worked at the Yacolt-area facility for 12 years and is a shop steward for the union.

For the past few years, the union has attempted to negotiate with the state concerning safety conditions in correctional facilities. Broad reforms were passed at the state level, but Clark says correctional facilities need more than a one-size-fits-all approach to safety.

Clark said that the death of corrections officer Jayme Biendl in 2011 is just one of the many reasons the state should listen to the union’s safety concerns. She was strangled to death by an inmate in January 2011.

“[The rally] shows not just our concern for ourselves, but also concern from families and the general community” said Clark, of Vancouver. “It really is about safety. We are asking for what others already have.”

The Department of Corrections has made sweeping safety changes since Biendl’s death, according to Dan Pacholke, Assistant Secretary of Prisons. Since Biendl’s death, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5907, a law that directs the department to establish a statewide security advisory committee, as well as local advisory committees.

The law also says that safety concerns are mandatory issues in collective bargaining.

“5907 is the strongest statement on addressing staff safety,” Pacholke said. “Staff safety is a top priority in our agency.”

Clark feels that 5907 does not go far enough.

“You need specific things for each prison, pepper spray, cameras in blind spots, more staff and better equipment” he said. “5907 is a broad-brush approach to safety issues.”

If safety negotiations between the union and the state reach an impasse, the state has the ability to refuse to bargain with the union altogether. Interest arbitration would allow the union to appeal the negotiations to a third party. The neutral arbitrator would hear testimonies from both parties and decide a course of action, preventing a take-it-or-leave-it scenario.

Many other law enforcement unions have received interest arbitration rights and improved safety conditions, Clark said. According to the union, State correctional employees have one of the highest rates of nonfatal job-related injuries.

On Thursday, the union made appointments with 48 different legislators, and about 250 members attended the rally, said Leonard Smith, the director of organizing for the Teamster Union.

The Teamsters do not expect the rally to be their last event in Olympia this session.

“This is our start,” said Clark. “This is the first step. We are constituents, we are tired of being treated like second-class citizens.”

Washington state’s 105-day legislative session begins today.

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