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Eye On Olympia

Union negotiation notes must be made public, judge rules…

Nine months after the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation filed a records request for notes and other documents from union contract negotiations with state officials, a judge has overruled union objections and ordered that the records be made public.

“These records are of interest to the citizens of the state,” wrote King County Superior Court Judge Christopher Washington.

He’s ordering the public release of the proposals from the unions and the notes taken by state negotiators.

A little background: For years, state employees could only collectively bargain their working conditions, not pay and benefits. Instead, those were subject to what some union leaders call “collective begging” — desperately lobbying lawmakers to write cost-of-living increases or other changes into the budget every two years. In some recent tight-budget years, this resulted in no cost-of-living increases at all for most state workers.

In 2002, state lawmakers agreed to let workers collectively bargain for pay and benefits — a change that has led to some dramatic increases in state-worker pay.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation — which for years has clashed in court and in public with public-employee unions — in November filed a request for notes from the contract negotiations. Unions representing about 50,000 state workers (several SEIU locals, WPEA/UFCW Local 365, the state nurses’ association and the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific) then sought an injunction barring the state — permanently — from releasing the records.

They also tried to get the law changed so that such records are exempted from public disclosure. After all, the unions argued, the final product — a contract — is absolutely open to public inspection. The bill failed.

In court, the unions argued that releasing the records would

“politicize the bargaining process, impede the free exchange of views opions and proposals, and disrupt the parties’ ability to maintain the candid, open, long-term and constructive relationship necessary for future collective bargaining negotiations.”

Also, they say, making the information public reveals insight into union strategy, and will chill participation by rank and file members in the bargaining committees. It would delay and impede negotiations, they said, to “invite the public, the media and other non-parties into the negotation process.” In depositions, several rank-and-file workers said that negotiations often get heated, and they wouldn’t want what they said to be printed in a newspaper or heard by citizens.

“The information sought is of no legitimate concern to the public and not in the public interest,”
the unions’ attorneys wrote.

Judge Washington disagrees. But he did limit the release of the documents to after the budget is approved by state lawmakers.

“Disclosure prior to this time could adversely affect the collecting bargaining process,” he agreed.

(Thanks for the heads-up: Allied Law Group’s new Open Government Blog.)


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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