Freedom Foundation

Whatcom County Council shelves union transparency ordinance

The Whatcom County Council last week rejected a proposed ordinance to open its collective bargaining negotiations with unions representing county employees to public observation.

The public comment period at the council’s recent virtual meeting was dominated primarily by the conspiratorial rantings of union officials who opposed the ordinance on the grounds it was allegedly part of a vast, right-wing conspiracy orchestrated by the Freedom Foundation.

While the Freedom Foundation has long supported collective bargaining transparency as a common-sense, good-government policy, it did not work with the Whatcom County Council to introduce the ordinance.

In fact, the only evidence of a conspiracy on display at the council’s Oct. 13 virtual meeting was the consistent talking points shared by the ordinance’s opponents. For instance, this author — who was the only speaker to argue in support of the proposal — lost track of the number of references to the “Freedom Foundation’s playbook” by union officials.

The following is just a sampling of the hyperbolic comments made by union officials (errors in original):

“The reality of this ordinance is right out of the extreme, right-wing Freedom Foundation playbook. This is a union-busting tactic… We must reject this assault on workers’ rights.”

“There’s no originality in this proposed ordinance. It’s straight from the so-called Freedom Foundation’s playbook on how to destroy public employee unions… This has nothing to do with transparency.”

“The ordinance implies that secret deal-making takes place. This is as absurd as it is insulting to the employees as well as the county’s HR professionals. The only secret deal-making is in the language of this ordinance, which was crafted by the Freedom Foundation behind closed doors in a cookie-cutter format… This is, very simply, an all-out attack on collective bargaining rights targeting public employees.”

“You seem to have been provided information by the so-called Freedom Foundation — and I use air quotes around that [be]cause they’re not really into anybody’s freedom other than themselves and their billionaire donors… This cookie-cutter language is being solicited by the so-called Freedom Foundation.”

“This ordinance is an outright union-busting ordinance… It is, again, right out of the Freedom Foundation, right-to-work playbook on how to get rid of unions in your county.”

“This is an insult to all unions and workers… This is something that appears to come from the Freedom Foundation. What’s next? Are you going to stop just there? Why not go after all public contracts? Let’s get rid of prevailing wage. Let’s put in no overtime pay. Let’s put all this in there. Put this. Put that. When’s it going to stop? … This is how right-to-work starts.”

“This ordinance has nothing to do with transparency. This is a page right out of the playbook of dark-money forces in this country who have no intention of seeking transparency for beneficial reasons… Every citizen of Whatcom County who calls 9-1-1 for a first responder is harmed by this ordinance. Everyone who expects roads and bridges to be safe is harmed. Everyone who needs clean water, clean air is harmed, potentially…”

“…[T]the only individual to testify in support of this ordinance this evening was Maxford Nelsen from the Freedom Foundation. He probably even wrote the ordinance for those councilmembers that proposed it. The title of this proposed ordinance was as misleading as the Freedom Foundation [itself]. They aren’t about freedom. They are about taking away the freedoms that labor has fought for. This is not about transparency. It’s about defunding public-sector jobs and threatening the quality of life for our community. This is not about fairness. It’s a direct attack on represented workers.”

“This is a direct attack not only on the public workers of Whatcom County, but all union members as a whole… In less than two weeks after this ordinance was put out, we now have Maxford Nelsen showing up in Whatcom County. Openly said he’s with the Freedom Foundation, so he backed everything that we said that this language was crafted by, supported by, and promoted by [the Freedom Foundation]…”

More concerning than the substance-free comments of union officials, however, were the gratuitous attacks leveled against the Freedom Foundation by several councilmembers, particularly Todd Donovan, who condemned the proposal as “disrespectful” and “insulting,” claiming:

“It’s a bad ordinance. It’s about weakening unions. It’s about radical right, Koch brothers, anti-union Freedom Foundation… Google this and you’ll find Freedom Foundation fingerprints all over it. It’s not about Whatcom County. It’s not about transparency. It’s part of a statewide, partisan, Republican, radical, right-wing campaign to weaken unions. And it’s irresponsible… It’s not good for the community. It’s not what people want.”

For their part, the ordinance’s three sponsors — Councilmembers Tyler Byrd, Ben Elenbaas and Kathy Kershner — expressed surprise at the level of union opposition, with each stating they were unfamiliar with the Freedom Foundation.

Councilmembers Byrd and Kershner explained that their support for the proposal was due, at least in part, to recent calls for the county to be more transparent about its process for funding law enforcement. Rather than having citizen participation in the collective bargaining process, as some advocate, they viewed public observation of union contract negotiations as a reasonable compromise.

For his part, the comments offered by Councilmember Ben Elenbaas probably best represented the reaction most members of the public would have had upon stumbling into the council’s virtual chambers that night:

“…[T]he county’s funded by taxpayers — it’s their money — and everything we do in politics we’re supposed to have as an open public meeting. And so, when the county’s negotiating with the public’s money, I thought it made sense for that to be out in the open. And I’ve got to applaud the unions here for how well they coordinated and sent all these emails but, I guess from my perspective — wow, your minds really wandered on it, as far as where it could go, where it would go and where it came from. I never heard of this Maxwell guy from the Freedom Foundation… Some of the stuff he said made some sense, though… I think there’s a lot more issues that come from this council that will affect the amount of money you put in your pocket every day than having people be able to listen in on a union negotiation.”

In the end, even though all seven councilmembers voted to approve introduction of the ordinance on Sept. 29, all seven reversed course and voted to withdraw the proposal at the Oct. 13 meeting in the face of union opposition.

Despite Whatcom County’s decision to continue excluding the public and union members from observing union contract negotiations over the allocation of taxpayer funds, the Freedom Foundation continues to lead the growing movement for collective bargaining transparency in Washington.

Just last month, Freedom Foundation attorneys defended Lincoln County’s collective bargaining transparency resolution before the Washington State Division III Court of Appeals in litigation brought by Teamsters Local 690 seeking to force the county to continue bargaining behind closed doors.

Audio of the Freedom Foundation’s comments to the Whatcom County Council is available here.

The Freedom Foundation’s written comments submitted to the Whatcom County Council are available here.