Initiative opens government labor talks to public

Initiative opens government labor talks to public
Government reform advocates have proposed Initiative 1608, which would open to the public all state, regional and local government negotiations with public labor unions. Photo: Created by Pressfoto - Freepik.com

Governor Jay Inslee’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) next week will begin collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations with public unions in meetings that are closed to taxpayers as well as union members, thanks to the 2002 Personnel System Reform Act exempting them from the state’s open public meetings act. Meanwhile, government reform advocates are gathering signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would throw open the doors to those talks and all other CBA negotiations between local governments and public unions.

While the 2002 law exempts state-level talks from the Open Meetings Law, a 1990 Washington court case gave state and local governments the option to let the public attend the meetings or keep them closed. In recent years several counties and school districts have decided to open them, though one of the two school districts reversed its decision.

Initiative 1608 would remove that choice by mandating public labor negotiations at all levels of government in Washington be made public. The text reads: “This measure would make collective bargaining sessions between public employers and employee organizations open for public observation and recording, make bargaining proposals public, and establish an online library of public collective bargaining agreements.”

Supporters include Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He said in a statement that “When government officials do the people’s business and spend the people’s money, the public has every right to be in the room.”

There have been numerous and unsuccessful efforts in the last two legislative sessions to make this change at a state level, and Democrat control of both chambers and the governor’s office strongly indicates any future proposals will meet the same fate.

There are currently over 20 state worker union contracts in effect. Documents from the negotiations can be obtained via a public records request, but only months after the talks have concluded and the new contracts approved.

2013 Goldwater Institute study found “the lack of transparency in negotiations leads to routine awarding of inflated compensation and benefits packages that far exceed typical private-sector employment terms.”

On top of that, another Washington law prohibits the state legislature from amending state public union contracts agreed upon with OFM. State lawmakers can only approve or reject those proposed CBAs.

All this can make it easier for state public unions such as the Washington Education Association (WEA) to obtain the double-digit salary increases they’re seeking after the latest state operating budget added $1 billion to pay for new teacher salaries. A 2014 working paper from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found that Washington pays a six-percent premium to its state workers in total pay, benefits and job security versus similar jobs in the private sector.

I-1608 would also resolve disputes like the one between Lincoln County and Teamsters Local 69. The county approved a resolution in 2016 opening its labor talks to the public, but the union refused to bargain and filed an unfair labor practice complaint that was ultimately unsuccessful. The county in turn filed its own complaint when the union still refused to bargain, but after a two-day hearing earlier this month, the hearing examiner ruled that the county couldn’t force the union to bargain in private meetings.

“Good luck trying to understand that ruling,” Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman said.

He told Lens they opened labor negotiations to the public as a way to convince voters a local sales tax increase is needed to cover county services. “We really don’t pass taxes in Lincoln County. One way to show to our public we’re not crying wolf (is to show) we need this money, this is for public safety and we’re going to spend it as openly and as transparently as possible.

“It’s just good public policy,” he added. “Why would you not want to do it this way?”

It’s a question the Tukwila School Board recently discussed before voting to rescind a previous resolution passed last July opening its public union negotiations. The only remaining board member from that time is President Dave Larson, who opposed the 2017 resolution and favored repealing it. According to the Feb. 13 meeting minutes, he told colleagues: “this is a complicated issue and there are a lot of unknowns on how all of this would play out.  For me, in this district at this time, it was not something I thought was worth wading into.”

He added that the transparency issue could be addressed by having board members sit in on negotiations. “I believe this is what is being referred to when people say they are wanting transparency.  In the past, the district’s budget was very high-level and hard to understand.  A person should be able to look at the budget and understand where the priorities are and where the money is going and why.”

Board member Jan Bolerjack abstained from voting, saying “I think it makes us very vulnerable, and yet if we don’t do it, how do we work through that feeling of ‘secrecy?’  We don’t have the trust yet, and to say ‘no, we are not going to do this’ feels like it takes the trust back a few steps.”

Public union officials in both Washington and other states considering similar policy changes argue that members of the public without background context and knowledge can misinterpret what is said and as a result make it difficult for negotiators to speak honestly.

Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire President Bill McQuillen told Fosters.com that “Ultimately, what the concern is on our part is that, as these topics come up in negotiations, having public influence or people in the room who aren’t part of the process who wouldn’t necessarily understand the history behind the part of the contract we are negotiating.”

However, Erin Shannon says closed talks keep affected parties in the dark. She is the director of the Center for Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center.

Shannon writes that “How does such secrecy serve the public interest, when even the state workers whose livelihoods are being negotiated are not allowed to watch what the union representing them is doing? Shouldn’t those workers be able to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name?”

She added: “A policy of open negotiations would identify whether one side or the other is being unreasonable, and would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith.”

Coffman shares the same attitude, saying the public would see “if you’ve got somebody being unreasonable, be it the union or it’s the county.”

I-1608 will need 259,622 signatures to make it on the ballot.

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