On Monday, by 4-3 vote, Gig Harbor became the latest Washington jurisdiction to stand up for transparent government when its city council members voted to adopt a resolution titled, “Conducting Collective Bargaining Agreement Negotiations in Public.”
By its actions, the council recognized that union demands at the bargaining table directly impact services, cost and accountability of government, and no phase of the process should be conducted beyond the scrutiny of those who will ultimately be expected to fund it with their tax dollars.
Predictably, a spokesman for Teamsters 117 testified during the city’s public hearing on the resolution – as did other organized labor operatives – all mouthing the same empty union taking points to explain how the public good is advanced when its business is conducted behind closed doors.
Teamsters 117 also offered a series of not-so-subtle threats to make the city’s decision as costly as possible by stonewalling and filing frivolous legal challenges. Others whined that it was somehow unfair to unions’ self-interest to allow public employees and Gig Harbor residents to observe the deal-making between their city leadership team and the union representatives.
Despite the intimidation tactics, four council members voted to put the public first.
Transparent bargaining matters.
First, the self-interest of public employees has a government-empowered ability to change the priorities of your local county, city, school district, hospital district, transportation district, college or other special district. The employees’ interest in increasing employment costs, decreasing workloads and maximizing job security is at times in conflict with the greater public interest.
Local boards – often composed of volunteers – that ultimately consider these agreements will seldom have time for a wider public consideration of the tradeoffs made at the bargaining table. Open bargaining allows broader public interests to have a slightly better chance of being considered alongside of the unions’ special interests.
Second, when politicians are funded by unions in their election campaigns, ending secret bargaining avoids the appearance (or existence) of conflict of interest. When the governor receives more than $5 million from the state’s public-sector unions, for example, the public should have the ability to verify that the public interest is being protected at the bargaining table.
Third, observed bargaining improves engagement. When a parent group hoping to charter a bus for a school extracurricular activity for its students discovers the union contract prevents them from doing so, their confidence in government wanes. When teachers are on strike – and even journalists are unable to figure out why – the school district is rightly subject to resentment. When taxpayers find they’re powerless to affect their government because key decisions happen without their knowledge, their civic engagement ebbs.
Fourth, public employees themselves need to know how they’re being represented. The union industry has a monopoly on workplace advocacy that’s exempt from consumer protection laws. Workers should have the ability to see whether the concerns they wish to have addressed are being raised in bargaining and should know if their representatives are representing their positions in an effective manner.
It won’t come from unions still heavily invested in secrecy and stealth, but Gig Harbor City Council deserves congratulations for showing the courage to make sure the public interest is not shut out as the union pursues its selfish agenda.
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