The Lincoln County Commissioners in 2016 voted to open collective bargaining negotiations with union leaders to the public. Three years later, the county is still embroiled in a legal battle with the only local public union refusing to negotiate with the county in an open meeting, and the case is now headed for the Division III Court of Appeals. The commissioners this week appealed a recent Lincoln County Superior Court ruling that upheld a previous Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) decision citing unfair labor practice by both sides.
Commissioner Scott Hutsell told Lens that while “we’re right back where we were,” he added they’re also in “uncharted territory” because they have not bargained with Teamsters 690 for more than two years. That is beyond the time allotted by state law for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to be finalized.
“There is a question of whether we have one or not,” he said. “We are still treating it like they (Teamsters 690) do have one.”
Representing Lincoln County Commissioners in the lawsuit is the Freedom Foundation. In a statement, Chief Litigation Counsel Eric Stahlfeld said that “local, elected representatives — including the Commissioners — clearly have the right to open their meetings to the constituency they serve. If the unions want to keep their own members in the dark, that’s between the leaders and the people who pay the dues. But the taxpayers deserve transparency, and we’re here to see they get it.”
The legal fight kicked off after the commissioners passed the resolution and attempted to conduct bargaining talks publicly in February 2017. The Teamsters 690 refused to bargain, and the county filed an unfair labor practice with PERC. However, PERC’s ruling left the situation unresolved by arguing that the county couldn’t demand the meetings be public, while the union couldn’t demand the meetings be private.
Although Washington has a very strong open public meeting law, a 1990 Washington court decision allows state and local governments to choose whether the public can attend collective bargaining negotiations. Lincoln County was the first jurisdiction in Washington to open talks to the public, and since then other counties such as Ferry and Kittitas have followed suit. However, similar lawsuits have not been filed there by local unions. Schools district boards such as Pullman have also made their bargaining talks public.
At the state level, a 2002 law exempts from the open meetings law bargaining negotiations between the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) acting on behalf of the governor and public union representatives.. An initiative filed last year would have overridden the 1990 court ruling and required all bargaining talks be made public, but I-608 failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier told Lens it’s unclear what can be achieved for the Teamsters. “You have to wonder: what are they so concerned about? I think initially their strategy was to scare other public officials. If you do this, we’re going to tie this in the courts and we’re going to bleed your treasury. They wanted to create a firewall, but at this point, it’s moving forward.”
Proponents of open talks such as Mercier argue that secret negotiations leave taxpayers who foot the bill for any increased wages or benefits in the dark as to whether or not elected officials and union reps are making fair demands. A 2016 legal brief filed by President Obama’s Department of Justice noted that there was “near-consensus” among accountability workgroups to the Seattle Police Department for “possible modifications to the collective bargaining process to enhance the transparency of union negotiations.” The report also noted “The Department of Justice and other parties involved in Seattle Police reforms actually favor more disclosure during contract negotiations.”
Also in support of open labor talks is Washington Coalition for Open Government President Toby Nixon. He told Lens that “labor cost make up the largest single portion of the budget of just about any agency. I think the public should be able to be aware of what’s going on, because it’s the public’s money that’s proposed to be spent. My experience is that the labor union leaders are usually more radical than the members themselves in terms of their demands and those kinds of things.”
Mercier points to recent school district strikes in Washington state over teacher salary increases; in the Kennewick School District, district officials announced they would make salary offers public. However, the union did not make its response to the district’s offer public.
“At the end of the day we see firsthand what happens,” Mercer said. “With every school district that went through a strike (there was) total poisoning of that local area. Everybody claims the other side is lying and dirty dogs. What does transparency do? It puts it out in front of everybody. You then get the chance to see who is being reasonable and who is being unreasonable.”
He added: “The bottom line on this: should those paying the bill have a seat at the table to know who is telling the truth or not? Those accountable to the voters should be the ones who have the authority to say ‘We’re going to be open about how we conduct this.’”