The news Tuesday that two unions representing several hundred state liquor store workers have filed suit to stop voter-approved liquor privatization Initiative 1183 from going into effect is a sad but typical development in an otherwise positive development in state politics.

Let me start by making full disclosure – I worked as paid member of the Yes on 1183 campaign staff. As a private citizen, however, my support for the idea of removing the state from the business side of the hard alcohol preceded my work on the ballot measure. The status quo meant that virtually the only stages of the liquor business in which the state did not participate were distilling and serving, but everything between the distillery door and the bartender’s pour was the domain of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

Despite the need to remove the state government from its antiquated role in the liquor trade – a position juggling the task of policing liquor while managing and operating a cartel-like system of retailing and distributing liquor – our successful campaign upset a few apple carts, most notably those of the unions and their workers.

As Washington’s fiscal future appears destined to produce more junctions at which union apple carts will present roadblocks to changes that benefit taxpayers, this recent decision to challenge the overwhelming will of the people by litigating to negate our choice to privatize liquor sales sends a clear message about their real priorities.

The joint news release by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 and the Teamsters Local 174 regarding the lawsuit claims 1183 violates Washington’s rule requiring initiative measures to address only a single issue. According to the unions:

“While it is not illegal for a private company to pay for an initiative and spend almost unlimited money to get it passed, it is illegal for them to abuse the system by loading the initiative with too many changes to the law. The reason for the single rule clause in the Constitution is to prohibit this very thing.”

There are, of course, elements of truth in the release. The single subject rule is intended to curb the ability of the people to enact sprawling, byzantine omnibus legislation that obfuscates its true purpose behind a veneer of popular causes. (That right is jealously reserved by the Legislature and the Congress.) But as 1183 clearly dealt with a single subject – the manner in which liquor is to be sold – there seems to be very little merit to the unions’ primary claim. As such, the suit smacks of the sort of nuisance litigation ordinarily confined to unscrupulous product liability and malpractice tort actions.

Instead of recognizing that the once fertile field of taxpayer-subsidized union jobs has been harvested too aggressively, instead of devoting union resources to job training and transition support to members displaced by 1183, their choice is to place landmines along the path to privatization that almost 59% of voters approved to become the law of Washington State.

Instead of accepting the potential stopgap that 1183’s $400 million in additional revenue over 6 years will mean for agencies forced to make cuts to staff or reductions in service after the latest round of budget cuts is agreed to, unions have circled the wagons to preserve what some estimate to be 700 jobs. In economic terms, this creates what is called an opportunity cost – the loss that comes from taking one action and forgoing another – and rarely is the cost so easy to quantify as in the case of 1183. Simple division does the job. $400 million divided by 700 jobs equals an opportunity cost to the taxpayer of $571,428 for each job the unions aim to save with their legal action. Amortized annually, that comes to $95,238 per job per year.

Are Washington taxpayers concerned enough about saving the state liquor system to forgo $95,000 per year in forecasted revenue? It is a question the unions simply do not want voters to spend much time thinking about, which is why they have opted to plead their case in a less publicly accountable venue – the court system.


[photo credit: redtype]