Founded in 1956, the Washington State Employees Association was created by a group of employees who wanted a new kind of labor organization. They were dissatisfied with the representation they were receiving from the Washington Federation of State Employees, particularly WFSE’s narrow focus on the needs of social service employees. WSEA’s founders wanted something different – an organization that would represent their interests, their way. This spirit of independence would become a hallmark of WPEA’s history.
At first, WSEA focused on lobbying the state legislature on issues such as salary and benefit levels, and employee rights. During this early period, most of WSEA’s members were at-large, and many of them were supervisors and managers.
During the 1970’s, WSEA began shifting toward a more traditional “labor union” model, negotiating its first collective bargaining agreements and endorsing “union shop” provisions. WSEA’s membership also declined during this period, as many members found themselves in newly-created WFSE bargaining units.
In 1975, WSEA changed its name to the Washington Public Employees Association to reflect a broader mission of representing public employees outside state government, such as those at Fort Vancouver Regional Library.
In 1977, WPEA conducted the only state employee labor strike in Washington State history. This two-day action against then-governor Dixie Lee Ray was instrumental in winning salary increases for all state employees. Interestingly, while private-sector unions such as the Teamsters and Longshoremen supported the strike, most state employee unions did not.
During the 1980’s, WPEA turned its attention to winning full collective bargaining rights for state employees. This effort began with a “Dignity Day” march in 1982, and continued with a series of bills introduced in the State Legislature. WPEA was a leader in this cause, at a time when other state employee unions preferred “business as usual.”
During the 1990’s, WPEA returned to its roots as a lobbying organization, mobilizing members around health benefit funding, pension improvements, and closing the state employee “pay gap.” Through these efforts, WPEA became a force to be reckoned with in state politics.
In 2002, WPEA’s twenty-year campaign for full collective bargaining rights finally became a reality, when the state legislature passed the Personnel System Reform Act, SHB 1268. This historic bill signaled the end of an era of “collective begging.”
In 2003, after nearly fifty years as an independent association, WPEA members voted to affiliate with the United Food and Commercial Workers, a diverse international union with 1.3 million members nationwide.