Unions Support Transparency, Except When it Applies to Them

Unions Support Transparency, Except When it Applies to Them

Unions Support Transparency, Except When it Applies to Them

“I understand the need for transparency and open government, but…”

Four of Washington’s labor leaders testified before the Senate Government Operations Committee last week against SB6183, which would bring greater transparency to collective bargaining negotiations between public agencies and labor unions.

Introduced by Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), the bill would eliminate an exemption for contract negotiations from the state Open Public Meetings Act.

Instead of mandating that all contract negotiations be open to the public, as at least five other states do, the bill allows collective bargaining sessions to take place privately on a case-by-case basis if both parties agree. Oregon’s public agencies have been governed by a similar law for about 15 years.

Keeping these meetings closed can lead to significant abuses, such as occurred in Seattle last summer when it was leaked out of private negotiations that the City was paying the police union president a six-figure salary to work full-time on union business.

In the event of an illegal teacher’s strike, the public is left in the dark about the real issues at stake in bargaining, and must attempt to sort through the different accounts provided secondhand by labor and management.

Echoing arguments we have made before, Sen. Braun noted in his testimony, “Many of the decisions about public services, accountability, and cost are decided in collective bargaining agreements.” Bringing greater transparency to the process, he continued, would not only help increase citizens’ trust in their public servants, but would help “mitigate some of the more outrageous positions and behavior that sometimes happen in bargaining.”

Labor executives were dismissive. “Nobody negotiates in public,” argued Dennis Eagle of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE). “The private sector doesn’t, the public sector doesn’t, the U.S. and Russia don’t… It’s a recipe for gridlock.”

On their face, the comparisons fail to hold water, and they ignore the fact that many states already successfully operate with open collective bargaining laws.

At least Mr. Eagle was more measured in his tone than his union’s website, which blamed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in part on an open collective bargaining meeting.

Joe Kendo, representing the Washington State Labor Council, offered vague rhetoric about how opening the meetings “really changes the dynamic of negotiations” which is, of course, the whole point.

He concluded by complaining that the bill was not really about transparency but “taking a jab” at labor unions.

Labor leaders around the country may disagree, however. Just last year, teachers unions in Maryland and New Mexico proposed holding open contract negotiations. In 2007, the Vancouver Education Association requested to have bargaining sessions tape-recorded, but the district refused.

Open meetings do not just benefit either management or labor: both sides, and the public, benefit from more transparent proceedings.

Steve Segall of WFSE Local 443 offered perhaps some of the weakest objections to the bill.

Segall compared contract negotiations to Kabuki Theater. “It’s very stylized,” he explained. “It’s very slow, it’s very boring, and it’s very time-consuming. It’s not going to be terribly edifying.”

As an attorney disbarred by the State of Colorado for misappropriating client funds, Segall knows a thing or two about giving people a song and dance routine.

One can appreciate Segall’s attempt to prevent taxpayers from being bored to death, but why not them decide what is and is not interesting? Many parents would probably appreciate the opportunity to see how their teacher’s union Kabuki’s its way into increasingly larger shares of local school levy funds at the expense of services to their kids.

By modeling a law that has worked in Oregon for over a decade and leaving a mechanism in place for both sides to close meetings for particularly sensitive discussion, SB6183 could not be more reasonable.

Providing the public a window into collective bargaining sessions is a long-overdue, common-sense reform, which must explain why the unions oppose it so vociferously.

See the video of the hearing below:

UPDATE: Though referred to the Senate floor, no vote on SB6183 was held before the cutoff date. The bill is dead for the 2014 session. 

Director of Research and Government Affairs
As the Freedom Foundation’s Director of Research and Government Affairs, Maxford Nelsen leads the team working to advance the Freedom Foundation’s mission through strategic research, public policy advocacy, and labor relations. Max regularly testifies on labor issues before legislative bodies and his research has formed the basis of several briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. Max’s work has been published in local newspapers around the country and in national outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, National Review, and the American Spectator. His work on labor policy issues has been featured in media outlets like the New York Times, Fox News, and PBS News Hour. He is a frequent guest on local radio stations like 770 KTTH and 570 KVI. From 2019-21, Max was a presidential appointee to the Federal Service Impasses Panel within the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which resolves contract negotiation disputes between federal agencies and labor unions. Prior to joining the Freedom Foundation in 2013, Max worked for WashingtonVotes.org and the Washington Policy Center and interned with the Heritage Foundation. Max holds a labor relations certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated magna cum laude from Whitworth University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. A Washington native, he lives in Olympia with his wife and sons.