Contract negotiations between government officials and unions of public employees are typically closed to the public (Lincoln, Kittitas County, Pullman and Tukwila Schoolboard negotiate publicly) even though these negotiations concern the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars and establish whether public employees will be forced to pay union dues.
Legislation has been introduced during the past several Washington state legislative sessions to require open collective bargaining, but it is always fiercely opposed by union lobbyists. Similarly, unions are seething over efforts to pass open collective bargaining resolutions in Washington’s local governments.
Teamsters 690 fought Lincoln County’s decision to open its contract negotiations by filing a complaint with the Public Relations Commission (PERC). PERC, however, has ruled on every case that the nature of the meetings being public or private is not a mandatory subject of bargaining and that the local government has the independent right to determine if meetings should be held in public or private.
The following are highlights of flawed union arguments used in local governments around Washington to oppose transparency in collective bargaining:
“A salient point that you need to think about in this is, if negotiations are open, and if an organization like the Freedom Foundation now has access to those meetings, what do you suppose they will do with that freedom? They will organize people to come in with the intent of disrupting those negotiations. The response from unions can only be to organize our people to come to those meetings… So, do you really want negotiation tables to become the next battleground between anti-union groups and unions? Because that is what is going to happen in open negotiations. People will organize around it, it will turn into a circus, and it is not going to accomplish the goal of getting fair contracts and getting the work of government done.”
– Jim Gow representing WEA, giving public testimony 48:50 at Benton County Commissioners meeting May 2, 2017
Benton County Commissioner Shon Small responds 53:15:
“I have heard a multitude of different stories to day… that maybe going back and forth will create possible riots inside. I think we have a very diverse group right here … it’s pretty quiet right now.
I have been involved in this circus for a number of years, and I know we can take care of any issues that occur, I guarantee that.”
– Shon Small
In a letter to Grays Harbor County Commissioners, Hannah Franks representing Council 2 of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, warned:
“By opening negotiations to the public, it would coerce public employees to be fearful of exercising their collective bargaining rights. It has a chilling effect on the membership of the unit and their willingness to participate in negotiations. Additionally, we believe that this is domination, as our members now feel intimidated to sit at the bargaining table.”
– Hannah Franks
Hannah Franks speaks in colorful adjectives and hyperbole. Her concerns are irrational and unfounded. It sounds like Ms. Franks is describing a victim of domestic abuse when she refers to her bargaining unit. Why are these people so afraid, what has their union leaders said and done to them?
“We are now asking our members to be more of a public figure, to put your face on those negotiations, to be subject to any attacks that come from having that information be public. I just don’t think we should ask public employees to have to step out into the light even further to do their job and just be represented. How much do we need to ask of our public employees? They do a lot, they sacrifice a lot to serve the public and to now have to put themselves out there like that, I just don’t think it’s appropriate to ask that of them.”
– Matthew McEtrick, Teamsters 117, public testimony at Benton County Commissioners meeting, May 2, 2017
Yes, Matthew, we’re asking that public servants be accountable.
And while it’s not entirely clear what these state workers are sacrificing, there’s nothing wrong with adding secrecy to the list.
Not in the public’s interest:
“This resolution accomplishes nothing I can see that is in the public interest, and it accomplishes several things that are not in the public’s interest … it supports only the agenda of a specific group.”
– Jim Gow, representing WEA
When it comes to special interests, you’d be hard pressed to find a more powerful, less scrupulous one than Jim Gow works for – and its agenda has very little in common with those of the public he invokes so glibly.
There is literally not one thing about open meetings that isn’t in the public’s interest. Not only do open meetings benefit the agenda of the taxpayers – on whose behalf the Freedom Foundation advocates – but it also benefits elected officials, the media and union members who have every right to see whether they’re being well represented in negotiations.
“The union will not agree to public negotiations… We have a contract with Grays Harbor County, not with the public… The public is not a party to the contract. (I)t has a chilling effect on the members of the unit… we believe that this is domination.”
– More from Hannah Franks’ letter
The public isn’t a party to the contract? Other than paying for it, you mean.
It will cost taxpayers:
“Added funding for counties to announce the meetings…, it is not an appropriate use of your money…”
Adam Shangar – Benton County employee and a shop steward, Teamsters Local 839
“It is going to cause you to have to fight legal battles. Because, of course, our unions will challenge it. The law doesn’t require it. It would be a unilateral move when you talk about collective bargaining; there are two parties to collective bargaining, and one party doesn’t get to make all the decisions, it has to be both parties. So you will face legal challenges. That means more costs. They are not interested in open government. They’re are interested in attacking unions, and you are going to pay the bill for them to attack unions.”
Jim Gow – WEA
Do we want public policy determined based on what’s right or threats from special interest groups?
Unions have challenged local governments having open meetings, and while it is true that state law does not require it, it certainly permits local governments to require it, and the State Public Employment Relations Commission has repeatedly reinforced this.
When Lincoln County passed the transparency resolution and faced a legal battle, the Freedom stepped in pro bono to defend the county. It is not costing the taxpayers.
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.
“The resolution was brought forward by the Freedom Foundation, a group funded by out-of-state billionaires whose stated missions is to defund and destroy unions and is part of a partisan agenda. This group has cost taxpayers across the state thousands of dollars by filing frivolous lawsuits against cities and communities. They say they want transparency, and of course, we all want transparency in government. But this is targeted against labor unions. This proposal has little to do with that transparency and accountability, or good governance. It has everything to do with grinding an axe against labor organizations to protect theirs out-of-state multi-billion dollar benefactors. So, don’t be fooled by the Freedom Foundations name, is our position. They are a group supported by dark money they don’t disclose … The Freedom Foundation is engaged in shady practices that hurt public safety, taxpayers and our local communities. We want that to be part of the record as you consider this ordinance or law. Resolution.”
– Austin DePaolo, Teamster 839 business rep
The Freedom Foundations mission statement is clearly posted on our website. I am not sure where Mr. DePaolo is getting his information, but it isn’t from our website.
“Our mission is to advance individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government.”
I see lots of conjecture and opinions about presumed motives and agendas, but not a word about the merit of the policy being proposed. It is an exercise in mental gymnastics to correlate publicly viewed employee contract negotiations with somehow benefiting any particular group.
Shooting the messenger doesn’t change the message. Open government policy is good government.
“Frivolous lawsuits” are in the eye of the beholder. I wonder if unions would care to provide an example? Meanwhile, we could cite numerous examples of frivolous lawsuits filed by unions, starting with the Teamsters’ claim that Lincoln County commissioners refused to negotiate when they were the ones who got up and walked out of the room.
It is amusing to listen to all of the talk about out of state funding, followed by a comment about being funded by dark money and a lack of transparency. You can’t have it both ways; either you know or you don’t know.
Lastly, I have no idea how “public safety” comes into this debate. Transparency has nothing to do with public safety. This seems to be emotionally charged unrelated desperation.
Allows both sides to be candid:
“There is no way you can be as frank and honest as you need to be in negotiations. Things come up, people start talking about this department had this problem because of this. You can have that open back and forth with people sitting in the audience.”
– Kevin Dordy, WFSE
And when you say, “frank and honest,” do you actually mean “We’re not open, and necessarily honest, on both sides?” Paul Parmley Teamsters Kittitas County 8/29/2017
It comes down to this: If it can’t be said in a public meeting, it probably does not need to be said at all.
It’s not broke, don’t try and fix it.
“As it is now, the system is not broke.”
– Kevin Dordy WFSE
A system that works spectacularly well for the unions and the politicians they support but keeps the taxpayers who write the checks out of the loop is, by definition, broke.
The devil is in the details, as they say, or in this case, in the process. Both the taxpayers and public employees being represented deserve to know how they are being represented.
“When there is a lack of information, people come up with their own.”
– Benton County Commissioner Shon Small
The Car Purchase Analogy:
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.
The Marriage Counseling Analogy:
Also commenting on Sequim’s initiative, one city official picked a different scenario:
“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 a married couple, that’s all the more reason for the public to see exactly what’s 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.
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?
Open Meetings Killed MLK Argument:
Last, but without question the most irrational:
“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 WFSE.
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.