Public School Employees of Washington’s first executive director, Frank Warnke, passed away Friday morning, Sept. 23. He was 78.
Warnke was hired toward the end of the 1960s as one of the organization’s first two paid employees. By June 1970, he was the field director and in 1974 he was made the first executive director, a position he held until he retired in 1991.
“I just give him all the credit for what PSE is today,” says field representative Ben Blackwell, who was hired by Warnke in 1972.
Prior to Warnke’s influence, PSE was mostly a social organization, Blackwell says. Warnke, however, formed it into a union that lobbied strongly for its classified employees.
“He wanted to see the classified employees be brought up to their stature for what they really did. And that’s what he worked on,” says Vince Mohan, one of PSE’s early state presidents.
Warnke attended Central Washington State College and graduated from the University of Washington, where he received a political science scholarship. He worked for Boeing for 10 years and while there got involved in state politics.
As a member of Legislature, he championed for employee rights, questioning the attorney general frequently about sick time and post-retirement benefits. In 1967, he helped spearhead the Public Employees’ Collective Bargaining Act, which shaped PSE and all other Washington unions.
When Warnke first came to PSE, there were only 633 members. By 1970, it had ballooned to 5,000 members and 100 chapters.
“Time meant nothing to Frank,” Mohan says, explaining that Warnke spent many hours traversing the state, speaking to classified employees and growing the union. He would be in Olympia in the morning and head to Wenatchee in the evening and then back home later that night.
“I think perhaps the most admirable thing was taking something that was almost nothing and building it up,” Blackwell says.
It wasn’t just a job to Warnke or anyone on staff, he says. It was a passion.
At that point, PSE staff knew a lot more about bargaining than the school districts.
“We were recognized as quite a powerful thing,” Mohan says.
But even though Warnke had no problem holding his ground during discussions, he always left with a handshake.