OLYMPIA, Wash. - Thousands of union members from all over Washington poured into the state Capitol Friday, calling on lawmakers to "put people first" by ending corporate tax breaks and painful cuts to public programs.
The protest was by far the largest of four days of boisterous demonstrations in Olympia over spending cuts legislators are considering in order to help close a looming $5 billion budget deficit for the next two-year cycle.
Buses began arriving at the Capitol hours before the noon rally, carrying musicians, iron workers, firefighters and others concerned about the scarcity of jobs, the rising cost of college and the security of their pensions. The Washington State Patrol estimated 7,000 people gathered outside the main legislative building, while labor group leaders put the figure closer to 12,000.
Protesters said they hoped the demonstration would serve as a powerful reminder to lawmakers of who their decisions are affecting as they work to craft the state's next two-year budget. The House plans to vote Friday or Saturday on a budget plan that includes $4.4 billion in cuts, while the Senate will introduce its own proposal next week.
"We need to remind them that we need changes right now, not later," said Tim Haslett, an electrical worker and father of five from Seattle who has been unemployed for most of the past two years. "I'm trying to do everything I can to pay for my youngest daughter to go to college next year, but I don't know how I'm going to be able to do that if there are no jobs."
"We do not have a budget deficit," Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, one of the rally's main organizers, told the crowd. "We have a social services deficit, we have a jobs deficit, we have a revenue deficit, and we have a deficit of leadership."
Many of the signs blanketing the crowd focused on the need to discontinue tax breaks for the financial services and other industries before resorting to more cuts. One read, "My community college teacher pays more tax than General Electric," while another declared, "We the People v. We the Corporation."
Dan Twohig, a 50-year-old licensed deck officer of the state ferry system, said corporations walk away with billions of taxpayer dollars every year while working families are forced to make do with less and less.
"It would beneficial on the state in general to stop attacking the workers; we're not the ones with the money," he said.
Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire so far has been lukewarm about the proposal to end tax breaks, and bills to halt some of them have failed to advance. State law requires a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to create or increase taxes.
Among the lineup of about a dozen speakers Friday, the person who generated the most buzz and applause was Wisconsin state Sen. Spencer Coggs, one of 14 Democratic senators who attempted to block that state's controversial new law eliminating most union rights for public employees.
Coggs recounted his experience fleeing to Illinois with his 13 colleagues in an ultimately failed attempt to prevent a vote on the legislation. He said it was labor groups across the country who "had our backs."
Many in the crowd referred to recent events in Wisconsin as the worst-case scenario they were hoping to prevent by joining the protest.
"Wisconsin has woken this country up," said Maureen Farr, a 65-year-old retired nurse from Olympia who was joined by her husband Peter, a retired special education teacher.
The rally appeared to be the largest at the Capitol since 2003, when tens of thousands of Washington teachers gathered to protest cuts to education funding.
The demonstrators were vocal but peaceful throughout the morning and early afternoon, and law enforcement officials kept their distance.
On Thursday, 17 people were arrested after a crowd of about 400 people converged on Gregoire's office, causing a scuffle with police. One man was booked on two counts of assault after reportedly attacking two state troopers, while the other 16 individuals were cited for disorderly conduct and released, said Washington State Patrol spokesman Robert Calkins.
The incident prompted the Department of General Administration to shut down the legislative building to the general public for several hours -- a move that drew criticism from Democratic leaders in the Senate who stayed for a late floor session. The building was reopened around 8 p.m.
For the past two nights, small groups of protesters have been permitted to sleep on the hard marble floor inside the central rotunda. State Patrol Lt. Mark Arras said the overnight guests were well-behaved and that the decision to allow them to stay came from Gregoire's office, State Patrol and the Department of General Administration, which manages Capitol grounds and buildings.