Following a recent Freedom Foundation protest against the ongoing secret meetings between Gov. Jay Inslee’s negotiators and representatives of the state employees’ unions, the Seattle Times editorial board joined a growing chorus of newspapers and political observers calling for more transparency in the collective bargaining process.
Currently, contract negotiations between government officials and unions of public employees are closed to the public, even though the negotiations determine the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars and establish whether public employees will be forced to pay union dues.
Legislation was introduced in the last legislative session to allow for open collective bargaining on a limited basis and was fiercely opposed by union lobbyists. Similarly, unions are apoplectic over activists’ efforts to pass open collective bargaining ordinances in several Washington cities.
As an advocate of open government, the Freedom Foundation has been paying attention to the arguments unions use to oppose transparency in collective bargaining. The following is a list of all the arguments unions have come up with this year:
1. The “Car Purchase” Argument:
Commenting on an initiative in Sequim to open the city’s negotiations with unions to the public, one union representative compared contract negotiations to buying a car:
“That’s like saying if I buy a car, I should let everyone in the neighborhood come over and sit in the room and give input.” – Michael Beranbaum, organizing director for Teamsters Joint Council 28.
Purchasing a car typically involves two parties: the person purchasing the car and the person selling it. Collective bargaining involves three: the union, the public employer and the taxpayers (not present) whose money is being bargained over.
Mr. Beranbaum’s analogy only holds up if he is buying the car with money taken from his neighbors, in which case his neighbors might reasonably expect to see how he decides to spend it.
2. The “Marriage Counseling” Argument:
Also commenting on Sequim’s initiative, one city official picked a different analogy:
“I would compare [open collective bargaining] to doing marriage counseling in public.” – Steve Burkett, Sequim City Manager.
Unfortunately, Burkett’s analogy is no more valid than Berenbaum’s. At least Burkett’s features the correct number of participants. In marriage counseling, a dispassionate third-party (the marriage counselor) helps a couple work out their differences which, except in the most unusual of cases, have no bearing on the public interest. Presumably the union and the public employer are supposed to represent the contentious couple. That alone is troubling. If unions (a private special interest group) and politicians are as intimate as an old married couple, all the more reason for the public to see exactly what is going on.
And if the marriage counselor is supposed to represent taxpayers, then the money flow is entirely reversed. Taxpayers should be the ones getting paid, not unions and politicians.
3. The “Foreign Relations” Argument:
A favorite of union executives and lobbyists:
“Nobody negotiates in public. The private sector doesn’t, the public sector doesn’t, the U.S. and Russia don’t. Nobody does. It doesn’t work. It’s a recipe for gridlock.” – Dennis Eagle, Washington Federation of State Employees.
Actually, many states successfully conduct part or all of their collective bargaining in public, including neighboring Oregon.
“The Paris Peace Talks or Ronald Reagan’s nuclear arms deal with the Soviets weren’t negotiated in public. But the public through their elected representatives and at the ballot box when politicians ran for re-election ultimately had the final say.” – Tim Welch, public affairs director for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
While we would be the first to acknowledge the significance of the decisions made in collective bargaining, it is a bit of a stretch to imply that secret union negotiations are responsible for staving off nuclear war and maintaining American hegemony. Collective bargaining is about dollars and cents, not national security. Also, it is worth noting that Welch’s point that elected officials are ultimately accountable at the ballot box could be used to justify closing all government meetings to the public. Elections are the last line of defense against government misconduct, not the first and only line.
4. The “Boredom” Argument:
“Contract negotiations, much of it takes place in the respective caucuses between management and labor, and it’s a bit of Kabuki Theater. It’s very stylized, it’s very slow, it’s very boring, and it’s very time-consuming. It’s not going to be terribly edifying.” – Steve Segall, Washington Federation of State Employees Local 443
While we appreciate Segall’s concern for the public’s entertainment, why don’t we let taxpayers, reporters and union members decide for themselves whether the negotiations are interesting enough to watch?
5. The “Attack on Workers” Argument:
Another union gem:
“This [legislation opening collective bargaining to the public] really is a thinly veiled, in my perception, attack on public-sector workers.” – Steve Segall, Washington Federation of State Employees Local 443
“This just seems to be another one of those types of bills that’s promulgated to just attack working people in the state and collective bargaining generally, so I strongly oppose this bill.” – State Sen. Bob Hasegawa.
If opening collective bargaining to the public is an “attack” on public employees, why did teachers unions in New Mexico and Maryland propose open meetings last year? Transparency is a two-way street. Sometimes unions will benefit more and sometimes management will.
6. The “Grandstanding” Argument:
“Opening these [collective bargaining] meetings really changes the dynamic of negotiations, including negotiators being more interested in grandstanding and mugging for the camera than actually trying to come to an agreement.” – Joe Kendo, lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council.
Greater transparency and openness in collective bargaining would make public officials more attentive to the interests of taxpayers and unions more interested in keeping their members happy. If one side is being unreasonable, then all can see and judge for themselves. Presumably, both sides will want to keep conflict to a minimum and will likely adopt a more moderate tone in negotiations, smoothing the process instead of causing gridlock.
7. The “Give-and-Take” Argument:
“Our General Government bargaining is confidential to allow give and take.” – Tim Welch, public affairs director for the Washington Federation of State Employees
On this point we agree with the union. Confidential meetings do allow for give and take: Politicians elected with union backing give away taxpayers’ money and union negotiators happily take it.
8. The “Open Meetings Killed MLK” Argument:
Last, but most certainly not least.
“Among the package of bills attacking your rights up for hearings in the Senate is SB 6183 to ruin the integrity of bargaining sessions by making them public circuses, a move we’ve opposed because of the lesson learned way back in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died in Memphis as part of the first-contract campaign for sanitation workers – bargaining that had become public grandstanding by management.” – Tim Welch, public affairs director for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
You heard him, open government supporters. Transparency killed Martin Luther King, Jr. Better give it up.
When it comes to debating the merits of transparency in collective bargaining, one need only listen to the union arguments to be convinced of its importance.