Washington is a leading state for workers — a long history of state action paved the way

The Jackson Street Workers Mural graces the exterior of the Washington State Labor Council offices in Seattle at the intersection of 16th and Jackson. The mural commemorates the history of progress of workers’ rights and achievements in Washington state.
The Jackson Street Workers Mural graces the exterior of the Washington State Labor Council offices in Seattle at the intersection of 16th and Jackson. The mural commemorates a history of workers’ rights and achievements in Washington state. Images courtesy of the Washington State Labor Council.

In 1906, American journalist Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a chronicle of worker exploitation and animal cruelty within Chicago packhouses. On factory floors throughout the country, the safety, compensation, and humanity of the average worker were afterthoughts in favor of output.

“If we are the greatest nation the sun ever shone upon, it would seem to be mainly because we have been able to goad our wage-earners to this pitch of frenzy,” wrote Sinclair.

The American Industrial Revolution began in the late 19th Century, and the worker was at first a casualty of its advances. A federal report on manufacturing wages published in 1886 found that two-thirds of respondents worked between 10 and 14 hours daily between 1830 and 1880. Workers had little recourse to protest dangerous conditions, grueling hours, and unfair pay. Attempts to organize were often repressed by employers and authorities.

Since Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894, workers nationwide have benefitted from 128 years of progress. Washington in particular is a premier state for workers thanks to a long legacy of regulation and advocacy in favor of workers’ rights and safety.

A Legacy of Progress for Labor

Washington was pitched in labor strife during early statehood. Logging, agriculture, fishing, mining, and smelting were among the state’s primary industries when it joined the Union in 1888. Each had its own set of perils for workers. A Bureau of Labor was created as a measure to protect workers and its first biennial report issued in 1899 describes some of the first workplace safety regulations to be implemented in the state, including the requirement of saw guards in shingle mills.

The Cain and Lytle shingle mill in Bothell, Washington is pictured on March 24, 1889. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, WAS0113)
The Cain and Lytle shingle mill in Bothell, Washington is pictured on March 24, 1889. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, WAS0113)

The same report described fatal and non-fatal accidents in coal mines, detailing the extraordinary dangers faced by miners and coal workers. Injuries came from falls, tumbling coal, unstable timber, moving train cars, and many other hazards.

The bureau’s establishment was an important early measure for worker safety, despite meager standards and limited enforcement in its early years. By 1911, Washington would enact “no-fault” industrial insurance to provide workers’ compensation coverage for hazardous jobs. The Legislature would later establish the State Safety Board in 1919 and the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) in 1921, setting a new course to advance the safety of workers.

In addition to the establishment of regulatory bodies, the right of workers to organize has realized gains in pay and improvements in working conditions and hours. Labor strife was fevered in the early 20th Century in Washington, and the Legislature codified the right of workers to unionize in early 1919.

That year, shipyard workers in Seattle went on strike to protest job and wage cuts. The shipyard workers called for a general strike throughout Seattle — a work stoppage across all industries. Roughly 64,000 workers would join the strike, leaving their jobs for four days. Later in 1919, automakers in Renton, firefighters in Tacoma, shipyard workers in Aberdeen, laundry workers in Vancouver, meat cutters in Anacortes, miners in Cle Elum, and builders in Yakima would all strike. Slowly but surely, industry by industry, organized workers affected change.

Shipyard workers gather near the Skinner and Eddy Corporation Shipyard in Seattle, Washington in 1919. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Asahel Curtis, photographer, CUR1383)

In 1970, the federal government passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act to standardize measures to protect workers from workplace hazards nationwide. The Legislature would pass the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA) three years later, superseding the federal measure. Washington became one of the first states to receive approval to exercise its own sovereign powers over occupational health and safety following OSHA approval in 1976, and L&I became responsible for occupational safety and health rulemaking and enforcement. OSHA regulations still apply to matters not covered by WISHA, but state control has generally afforded greater protections to workers and more attention to issues common to the state’s native industries.

Modern Advances for Workers

Regulatory action and the influence of labor unions, civil liability, and workers over the years have established a culture of safety and wellness for Washington workers.

“Washington is leading the way in lifting workers up,” says Washington State Labor Council spokesperson David Groves. “Steps the governor has taken to increase access to overtime and establish paid family leave — these steps make Washington a better place to work and a more desirable place to live. It makes a big difference to live in a state where workers are treated well.”

Washington state workers benefitted from a state minimum wage even before a federal standard existed, and Washington now has the second-highest minimum wage in the nation at $14 an hour, nearly double the federal rate of $7.25, which has not been adjusted since 2009 despite inflation since.

“People who work full time shouldn’t struggle to meet basic necessities,” says Groves. “$7.25 an hour? Without a minimum wage that covers necessities, you just set up state government to subsidize businesses that pay poverty wages.”

Inequality and poverty remain in Washington. Even a high minimum wage may not pace the rising cost of living in some areas. Rural workforce development and educational programs are introducing Washingtonians to high-demand careers. Statewide programs assist individuals with disabilities, young workers, low-income workers, and workers with limited English proficiency to find employment. Investments in public transit may improve access to urban jobs. Investments in clean energy are creating employment in rural communities.

Washington state also has a leading paid family leave program in the nation, one of just 11 such state programs in America. Millions of Washington workers enjoy the liberty to take paid time away from work to bond with their new baby, recover from a health condition, or welcome a loved one home from military deployment. Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill to provide paid family leave to Washington workers in 2017, preceded by the passage of a voter initiative for paid sick leave in 2016.

Governor Jay Inslee signs SB 5975 to enact paid family and medical leave in Washington state on July 5, 2017.

Unlike so-called “right to work” states that aim to make it harder for workers to organize and collectively bargain, Washington workers are free to organize. About 20% of them do, good for the third-highest rate of union membership in the nation.

The state has diligently addressed many unsafe workplace practices across the economy. In every workplace in Washington state, three L&I posters now must hang to inform workers of their rights and recourse for injury. L&I’s present work remains focused on advancing workers’ rights and addressing hazards. As workplaces evolve, so has the work of the department.

“L&I’s work is twofold: we sustain our tried-and-true mission to protect workers from injury or death. We also have plenty of new challenges to confront,” says L&I spokesman Tim Church. “New topics come from the Legislature, from workers, and from all sorts of directions — even pandemics.”

E-commerce and rapid delivery have led to a surge in warehousing statewide, and a corresponding surge in ergonomic injuries suffered by workers lifting heavy objects and walking long distances. The rise in ridesharing led to legislative protections for drivers including minimum pay, paid sick leave, and firing protections. Last January, Washington became one of the first states in the nation to require overtime pay for farm workers. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic posed a grave threat to workers statewide, and state agencies quickly enacted temporary rules to protect workers.

Even climate change threatens workers. As wildfires intensify, looming smoke becomes a hazard for agricultural workers harvesting Washington’s food. As summer temperatures soar, extreme heat threatens outdoor workers. For both hazards, L&I has adopted emergency regulations and is finalizing permanent measures to protect workers.

Smoke from the Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington state clouds the landscape in 2015 during the state’s worst wildfire season on record. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

L&I is also exploring “underground economies” to root out fraud and worker exploitation. The department issues an annual Underground Economy Benchmark Report to quantify unregistered or unscrupulous contractors. At the direction of the Legislature, L&I has also begun to address the safety of adult entertainers.

L&I was founded in 1921 on a mission to “Keep Washington Safe and Working,” a mission they have sustained for 101 years. Looking ahead, the governor’s legislative priorities will perpetuate his commitment to the workforce. Those priorities include a push for affordable “middle housing” options for working people; competitive compensation within state agencies to provide critical services; continued worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic; and more pathways to empowering workers to discover new careers.

Happy Labor Day.

Works Cited and Related Reading

1. Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Doubleday, Page & Co. 1906

2. Weeks, J. D. (1886). (rep.). Report on the Statistics of Wages in Manufacturing Industries. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior Census Office.

3. Adams, W. P. C., Blackman, W., Norton, R. H., & Ostrander, W. E. (1899). (rep.). First Biennial Report. Olympia, WA: Bureau of Labor of the State of Washington.

4. Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. (2019, July 5). Blood, sweat, and trees… how L&I came to be. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.lni.wa.gov/agency/blog/articles/blood-sweat-and-trees-how-l-and-i-came-to-be

5. Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington. (2009). Strikes! labor history encyclopedia for the Pacific Northwest. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://depts.washington.edu/labhist/encyclopedia/index.shtml

6. Paja, A. S. (1994). (rep.). The Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act: WISHA’s Twentieth Anniversary, 1973–1993 (Winter 1994, Vol. 17, Ser. 2, pp. 259–283). Tacoma, WA: University of Puget Sound Law Review.

7. Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. (2021). (rep.). Underground Economy Benchmark Report (RCW 18.27.800) Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 Annual Report to the Legislature (December 2021). Olympia, WA.

8. Washington State Department of Labor & Industries. (2020). (rep.). Adult Entertainer Advisory Committee Report to the Legislature (November 2020). Olympia, WA.

9. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). (rep.). Union Members in Washington — 2021. San Francisco, CA.

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Governor Jay Inslee

Governor Jay Inslee

Governor of Washington state. Writing about innovation, jobs, education, clean energy & my grandkids. Building a WA that works for everyone.