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Unions and Senate Democrats on Defense Over Collective Bargaining Transparency

It’s not uncommon for bills introduced in the state Legislature to take several years to gain traction before becoming law. With Freedom Foundation-supported legislation to bring greater transparency to government union contract negotiations with public employers introduced in the Washington State Senate every year since 2014, unions and their allies in the Legislature are running out of arguments to oppose this common-sense reform.

Under current law, collective bargaining negotiations between government employers and labor unions representing public employees are exempted from the state Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). While nothing prevents the negotiations from being conducted publicly, historically the default position has been for bargaining to take place behind closed doors, though some local jurisdictions like Lincoln County and the Pullman School District have opted to begin conducting contract negotiations publicly.

At nearly all levels of government, personnel costs constitute the single largest part of the budget. Because most nonsupervisory (and many supervisory) public employees are unionized, most of state and local government budgets are allocated through collective bargaining. Union negotiations also frequently affect services the public receives and accountability measures for public employees.

But even though taxpayers must foot the bill for the negotiations, the public is excluded from witnessing the proceedings and doesn’t get to see anything until the final contract has been negotiated and approved. The fact that unions often bargain with political officials they helped elect adds to the appearance of impropriety. 

Even the Legislature is kept in the dark about the governor’s negotiations with state employees’ unions until the process is completed and they are presented with the final contracts. State law prevents the Legislature from amending the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and specifies that it must approve or reject the contracts as a whole, severely limiting the Legislature’s appropriate, constitutional role as the government branch in charge of the state budget.

As initially introduced by Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver), SB 5545 would have removed the OPMA’s exemption for public-sector collective bargaining negotiations and required that all such negotiations be conducted as open public meetings. While taxpayers, media and union members would be allowed to observe the proceedings, they would not be permitted to participate or offer commentary.

At the hearing on SB 5545 before the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee on Feb. 6, Wilson made her case for collective bargaining transparency, explaining:

“For years I’ve been advocating for transparency and accountability in state government, and that’s what I’m doing with this bill here today… Every bargaining cycle, there are two parties at the table, in a room behind closed doors—all done in secret, private meetings. You have union officials and government officials behind closed doors doing the negotiating… When a light is shined on the process, you get a fairer and more equitable deal. Let the employee be a witness to what their representative is negotiating on their behalf, and the taxpayer witness what the government is representing on their behalf so the process is completely transparent.”

As in past years, the bill was opposed by union lobbyists.

Adrienne Thompson, lobbyist for Professional and Technical Employees Local 17, stated that, although “we do believe in transparency,” “closed meetings” are necessary “in order to have hard and difficult conversations.”

Joe Kuhn of Teamsters 690, who bargained on behalf of the union during the first open negotiations in Lincoln County in January, said that, although “it wasn’t a stressful situation to bargain in the public,” he remained opposed to the legislation. Still, he appeared open to the idea of making the process more transparent in other ways, noting:

“I think there are other ways for municipalities when bargaining is done to have a website or to have an updating website that shows how bargaining is going, a progression of bargaining, what’s been offered, without actually opening up the frank discussions behind closed doors.”

In addition to the Freedom Foundation, David Dewhirst, representing the Washington Coalition for Open Government, spoke in favor of the bill contending:

“A public employee collective bargaining negotiation is an inherently political activity during which vital decisions about public services, accountability and costs are decided. Billions of taxpayer dollars are allocated in thousands of collective bargaining negotiations statewide, and the public has a right to know and observe activities at the bargaining table. They have a right to see how their elected and appointed officials are representing them and how union representatives are advocating for public employees… SB 5545 restores the public’s interest in observing these negotiations. It also eliminates the likelihood that either a government or a union would enter negotiations with extreme, absurd or unduly strident positions and it compels both to start closer to the middle.”

The legislation was also supported by Erin Shannon of the Washington Policy Center, who argued that collective bargaining transparency “(is) not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s an open government issue.”

But the most compelling testimony was offered by Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman, who explained that he and his fellow commissioners had opted to start treating negotiations as public meetings to help build support for a proposed sales tax increase for public safety.

“In order to convince the public that there was a legitimate need, we wanted to do everything as openly and transparently as possible,” Coffman stated.

He went on to note that polling showed 74 percent of Lincoln County residents approved of the commissioners’ decision, with only 7 percent opposed, explaining the move “has been extremely well-received by the public and our employees.”

Regarding the arguments raised by unions against transparency, Coffman countered:

“What I can tell from firsthand experience is none of these arguments have any validity. We’ve done it. In Lincoln County, we’ve bargained in open public meetings and it went fine. There were no issues. It was well attended by the public and turned out to be very productive… What does anyone have to hide from the public that we all serve?”

Good question.

Nevertheless, Sen. Wilson pared the bill back after the committee hearing to address some of labor’s concerns. The substitute version would have allowed the negotiations to remain behind closed doors, but would:

  • Require that government employers make current bargaining proposals available to the public every two weeks during union contract negotiations.
  • Encourage government employers to conduct and make publicly available a fiscal analysis of the final proposed contract terms before approving a collective bargaining agreement.
  • Require government employers to send a copy of finalized collective bargaining agreements to the Public Employment Relations Commission within 30 days of approval.
  • Require the legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations to meet at least twice per year during state employee contract negotiations to review contract proposals and make recommendations to the governor.

These reforms are loosely based on the “civic openness in negotiations” (COIN) model pioneered by a group of California cities.

“We want at least some transparency if we can’t get it all,” Wilson told the Seattle Times.

Democrats panned even the scaled-down proposal, with Democrat House majority leader Rep. Pat Sullivan calling it “political more than it is policy based.”

When it came time for the committee to vote on the amended bill, Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) continued to argue against the open meetings concept, stating, “Anybody who’s been through collective bargaining knows that having open meetings is a little bit crazy.”

SB 5545 passed out of the Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee on a 5-4, party-line vote. Unfortunately, the bill did not receive a vote on the floor of the Senate before cutoff, and appears to be dead for the 2017 session.

Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee hearing on SB 5545 on Feb. 6, 2017:

 

Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee vote on SB 5545 on Feb. 15, 2017:

 

Further resources:

States providing for transparency in collective bargaining:

Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas.

Washington editorials supporting collective bargaining transparency: