Shrouded In Secrecy: Public Sector Labor Talks In Washington

Shrouded in Secrecy: The Hidden World of Public Sector Labor Talks In Washington
Proponents of transparency in public employee contract talks say the current black out imposed in Washington state erodes trusts and can drive up taxpayer costs. Image:

Since 2002 in Washington state, public unions and the governor have negotiated in secrecy over state employee benefits and salaries as part of the biennial budget. They make out pretty well in tight times. With the value of job security included, Washington dispenses to its state employees combined benefits and salaries six percent higher than comparable private sector workers, according to one 2014 analysis.

Another issue is the legislature’s current inability to amend or revise the contracts once they’re finalized. They only get a “yes” or “no” option.

There are a whopping 26 state worker union contracts currently in effect. Collective bargaining negotiations between the governor and the unions occur every two years. Negotiations for the 2017-19 biennial budget are expected to take place sometime this spring or summer. The Office of Financial Management (OFM) handles public employee union contract talks on behalf of the governor but acts at his or her behest.

‘Most Incestuous Bargaining System Ever’

This current sequestration of the bargaining process is relatively new to the state though it is common through the country. Previously in Washington, public union leaders could only negotiate with the governor over work conditions. Salaries and benefits were part of the regular budgetary process including lawmakers.

This changed with the Personnel System Reform Act, approved in 2002. Taking effect in 2004 was a provision exempting contract negotiating meetings between union officials and OFM from the state’s open public meetings act. As a result the records are not accessible to the public until after a contract agreement has been finalized.

The result is the “most incestuous bargaining system ever” says Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13). In 2015 Manweller cosponsored HB 2490 which would have made the negotiations public but the bill never got a hearing.

Having an elected official secretly bargain pay and benefits with people who financially supported their political campaign is like students deciding a teacher‘s pay before the teacher turns in their grades, said Manweller.

For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $1.8 million during the 2012 governor’s race in direct and indirect support for Jay Inslee’s campaign, according to the Freedom Foundation. SEIU Healthcare 1199NW consists of 26,000 members that includes doctors, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, pharmacists, technicians, professionals, therapists, mental health workers, certified nursing aides, housekeeping and dietary staff, and other healthcare workers.

Another major player is the 40,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). The WFSE and its parent union gave about $1.1 million to Inslee’s 2012 campaign.

A 2013 Goldwater Institute study found that less than ten states facilitated public oversight through open government laws which apply to aspects of collective bargaining negotiations.

It concluded that “the lack of transparency in negotiations leads to routine awarding of inflated compensation and benefits packages that far exceed typical private-sector employment terms.”

A Taxpayer Premium

A 2014 working paper from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) examined all 50 states and concluded Washington pays a premium of six percent to its state workers in total pay, benefits and job security versus comparable private sector workers.

Some other states are far more generous to public workers. The premium is 56 percent in Connecticut, 47 percent in New York, 40 percent in Pennsylvania and 33 percent in California. Oregon’s premium is 16 percent, and Idaho’s 7 percent. The paper is based on 2009-2012 data.

Opening up contract negotiations in Washington could mean public union officials will make more modest proposals, according to Paul Guppy. Guppy is the Vice President for Research at the Washington Policy Center (WPC).

“People who make these public decisions want to avoid embarrassment, so they have to be reasonable,” he said.

At the very least the offers and counteroffers made during negotiations should be made public, said Jason Mercier. Mercier is the director of WPC’s Center for Government Reform.

Although some states like Idaho have revised their laws to make the bargaining process more transparent, there’s little optimism of something similar happening in Washington anytime soon.

During last year’s legislative session Sen. John Braun (R-20) introduced SB 6162 which among other things would have made the negotiations public. It never reached the Senate floor for a vote.

The most realistic way to make bargaining more transparent is through the initiative process, said Manweller.

Yet even then formal negotiations would turn into “theater,” he added.

WSFE’s Executive Director Greg Devereux seemed to confirm this while testifying at the May 2015 public hearing for SB 6126. No “serious” negotiations go on any at level when they are made public, he said.

Although transparency is important, giving the legislature more flexibility to revise agreement would be more impactful, said Manweller.

Under state law the legislature can only vote yes or no in response to whatever salaries and benefits the governor and union officials have agreed to.

“There’s absolutely no nuance to it,” Manweller said.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) argued these restrictions on the legislature can make it difficult for them to adjust the agreement to match new economic forecasts. Baumgartner is the chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

“It’s a system that is not well aligned for the incentive of the taxpayer and the people truly in charge of what’s supposed to be happening,” he said.

Is Freeze-Out Of Lawmakers Unconstitutional?

Some assert that the “yes or no” stipulation is actually unconstitutional. A 2006 Washington Law Review Association article argued that it violates the “separation of powers doctrine” in the state constitution by undermining the legislature’s authority under Article VIII, Section 4 in which the legislature  holds “near-exclusive  power  to  determine  how  public  funds  will  be  spent.”

The first step might be the governor reaching out to the legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Employment Relations. Under the 2002 law, the governor is supposed to periodically consult with them about contract negotiations, but the committee has never met.


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