Reforming Public Sector Labor Talks

Reforming Public Sector Labor Talks
Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) chairs the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee, which conducted a May 17 work session on recent state labor contracts. The meeting served as a springboard to discuss the secrecy surrounding collective bargaining negotiations between the governor and public sector union officials.

While the state Senate this session narrowly approved two bills to end secrecy surrounding the negotiation process for collective bargaining agreements (CBA) between the governor and state public sector labor unions, both bills failed to land a House committee public hearing, prompting Senate Republicans to now take a second shot at reform with new legislation.

Serving as a springboard for this effort was a May 17 work session of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee. Officially, the meeting’s purpose was to investigate allegations made concerning several public sector labor contracts, but open tension between colleagues was apparent throughout the discussion.

The work session dovetailed off a forum held days earlier at the Washington Policy Center Solutions Summit in downtown Bellevue, where panel members discussed the need to make public labor union negotiations with the state open to the public.

The anticipated legislation may come into play with budget talks as lawmakers seek to reconcile differences that include funding for the $1.7 billion CBAs agreed upon by Governor Inslee. Under the Republican proposal, allocations are made for only $240 million.

Sen. John Braun (R-20) is the Senate’s chief budget writer and a vice chair of Commerce, Labor and Sports. He was also the primary sponsor for SB 5329, introduced in 2015, which would have required collective bargaining negotiations at all levels of government to be open meetings.

During the May 17 work session, he took aim at certain memorandums of understanding (MOUs) made between Inslee and one of the public sector unions, modifying their CBA.

“Here we have MOUs negotiated…claims by the executive branch that they can pay for them out of existing resources, they don’t need to follow the law and submit them to the legislature – ‘And by the way legislature, here’s our $80 million shortfall that we’d like you to help us pay.’ That is directly interfering with the job we have to do as elected members of the legislature. That is the executive doing our job,” Braun said.

Freedom Foundation’s Director of Labor Policy Max Nelson told committee members that the Office of Financial Management (OFM), which negotiates on the governor’s behalf, may have violated state law by issuing the MOUs.

“This is really a separation of powers issue and constitutional issue,” he said.

The work session itself was inspired by a media investigation and interviews with former state employees who claimed taxpayers were not being fairly represented during negotiations.

Testifying at the work session, Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, told lawmakers that opening the closed doors to these labor talks could change that.

He also advocated changes to state law allowing the legislature to decide CBAs, rather than the governor.  “The legislative process – this is exactly what we’re asking for: to ask your questions, make your tradeoffs, prioritization. It would allow the legislative branch to be the legislative branch, to have the authority over appropriations…Everybody is playing their role except for the legislature, because it has been taken away from your hands.

In agreement was Sen. Dino Rossi (R-45), who sponsored legislation this session prohibiting public sector labor unions from donating to gubernatorial campaigns. “Honestly, what you (Mercier) suggested is going back to the way it was from 1889 until 2005, where the legislature’s the one that decides the taxing and the spending.”

Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11) told colleagues that “I fully support getting money out of politics….If we considered at the time barring acceptance of corporate donations and issuing any state contracts to anybody that’s contributed to a political campaign from the corporate side. What’s fair for one side should be fair for both sides. I might cosponsor that bill.”

The dialogue between colleagues and panel members often proved contentious. At the beginning of the meeting, Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33) told colleagues that “I think this work session has been pulled together in a very hasty way” and cited the lack of testimony from OFM. “We’re not getting the full picture, we’re not getting all views.”

However, Committee Chair Michael Baumgartner (R-6) replied that he had extended an invitation to public sector union and OFM officials, who declined to attend.

At one point, Sen. Steve Conway (D-29) said: “This work session shouldn’t be a platform for talking about legislation that has been before this legislature.” Although the work session was meant to be a fact-finding mission, “all I’m hearing here are opinions,” he added.

Baumgartner replied, “when you’re chair of the committee you can run it the way you want, but for right now we’re going to have a free-flowing, wide-ranged discussion of state labor contracts.”

So far, Lincoln County and the Pullman School District have opened their labor union negotiations to the public, though discussions have arisen in Benton and Franklin counties.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman told attendees at the Washington Policy Summit forum that “the need for transparency is greater when governments are struggling. They can understand why we struggle. If either side’s being unreasonable, the public can see that. The taxpayers just need to know how they’re being represented in these negotiations.”

Panel member and former State Rep. Rodney Tom (D-48) told attendees that the case for open negotiations is strong.

“How can you say that the public shouldn’t gave access to that?” he said. “Transparency is a way to build trust.”

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