Shining Light on Secret Public Sector Labor Negotiations

Shining Light on Secret Public Sector Labor Negotiations
Two Senate bills would reform collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the state and public sector unions. Those meetings are currently exempt from the state's Public Meetings Act. Photo: studyinthestates.dhs.gov.

Two state Republican Senate bills aim to reform contract negotiations currently held in secret between public officials and public sector unions. SB 5545 would make state and local collective bargaining negotiations subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, while SB 5533 seeks to eliminate perceived conflicts of interest between collective bargaining groups that can contribute to gubernatorial campaigns even as they negotiate with the governor.

Both Senate bills received a public hearing on Monday, February 6 at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Sports. SB 5545 proponents underscored how open meetings ensure agreements are fiscally responsible toward taxpayers, while supporters of SB 5533 argued the legislation would eliminate perceived conflicts of interest the same way a state law bars insurance companies from donating to State Insurance Commissioner candidates. However, concerns raised by some panel members and testifiers over both bills indicate amendments are likely.

The 2002 Personnel System Reform Act allows public union leaders to negotiate with the governor on salaries and benefits, which had previously been a part of the legislative budgetary process. In 2004, a provision exempted them from the state’s open public meeting requirements.

The most recent collective bargaining agreements (CBA) negotiated last summer with Governor Jay Inslee’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) are expected to add $1.7 billion in new state spending over the next four years. The state Economic Revenue and Forecast Council already anticipates a $2 billion deficit at the end of that time frame under Inslee’s proposed 2017-19 operating budget.

SB 5545’s provisions mirror that of SB 5329, a 2015 bill sponsored by State Sen. John Braun (R-20), Vice Chair of Commerce and Labor. The bill made it out of that committee, but did not clear Rules. SB 5545’s prime sponsor is State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17). The cosponsors include Braun, State Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45), and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9). Rossi is the chief sponsor for SB 5533, with Wilson, Braun, and six other Republicans cosponsoring.

Wilson: Open Meetings Encourage Fiscal Responsibility

Wilson told panel members that the closed negotiation process encourages fiscal irresponsibility by both parties at the bargaining table.

“If the union and the government decide they need more money for these contracts, there’s always a way to get more, and that’s by raising taxes,” she said. “When a light is shined on the process, you get a fair and more equitable deal.”

The view is shared by David Dewhirst, a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He told panel members that SB 5545 “eliminates the likelihood that either the government or union would enter negotiations with extreme, absurd, or unduly stringent positions. It compels both to start closer to the middle.”

Elsewhere in the state, several regional and local governments have recently enacted similar collective bargaining reforms. Lincoln County Council approved a resolution in September opening their negotiations to the public. Last month, the Pullman School District Board voted to do the same.

Although SB 5545 would apply to collective bargaining negotiations at all levels of government, the impact would be particularly felt in Olympia, where state public union representatives and the governor negotiate every two years. The resulting agreements can often add significant financial burdens to the state. OFM has recently come under fire from some Senate fiscal hawks, who question whether the latest CBAs meet a state legal requirement that they be financially feasible.

Exempt from SB 5545’s open meeting provision are party strategy sessions and grievance meetings. Union negotiators would also be allowed to keep the meetings closed if they are recorded and accessible to the public within 24 hours. Union officials would not be required to allow public comment during the negotiations.

Bill Opponents Want Negotiation Policy Decided Locally

Opposed to the bill is the Washington State Association of Counties, due to the bill’s blanket application to all government collective bargaining negotiations. Director of Policy and Legislative Relations Josh Weiss told panel members they support transparency, but “we don’t think the state needs to tell local governments whether these negotiations should be open or not. We think that those should be local decisions.”

Currently at the state level, these closed negotiations can occur between a governor and groups that contributed heavily to his or her campaign. During the 2012 open-seat race for governor, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spent $1.8 million in direct and indirect support for Inslee’s campaign, while the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) and its parent union gave roughly $1.1 million.

Rossi: Remove Appearance of Corruption

SB 5533 chief sponsor State Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45) told panel members allowing this creates “the appearance of corruption. I’m not saying the governor’s corrupt. I’m saying it has the appearance, and we should eliminate that.”

SB 5533 prohibits any group that collectively bargains with the state from donating to any gubernatorial candidate. This would also apply to any political committees using donation money from collective bargaining groups, unless those funds were segregated. The state approved a similar law for the State Insurance Commissioner in 1947.

If approved, SB 5533 would be placed on the ballot this November as a referendum.

“This is a clean government bill, is what this is,” Rossi said.

In agreement is Washington Policy Center Labor Reform Director Erin Shannon, who told the committee that “the mere perception of a quid pro quo is sufficient to cast doubt” on the integrity of the process.

However, panel members such as Ranking Minority Member State Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33) suggested the bill unfairly targeted union political activity specifically, even though businesses also negotiate for contracts with the state.

State Sen. Steve Conway (D-29) expressed a similar view. “We do a lot of work for a lot different corporations in this legislature. And we all end up taking contributions from those groups. I find it unusual we’re singling out these collective bargaining contracts, when that is an ongoing issue with the decision making in our legislature.”

Rossi replied that state lawmakers have greater control over the nuance of those policies, whereas current state law prohibits them from amending the CBAs agreed upon by the governor.

“We (only) get to give thumbs up or thumbs down after the deal’s been cut,” he said.

It was a point also raised at the February 6 hearing by Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation.

“That concentrated power over such a significant part of the state budget is one reason why this maybe deserves a different level of scrutiny and attention,” he said.

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