December 26, 2008 in Opinion

Our View: Open bargaining meetings between state, unions

 

A spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees says the union is looking for a referee to decide Gov. Chris Gregoire’s legal authority to leave 40,000 public employees’ raises out of her budget.

Suing the governor, which the union did Tuesday, was no “damn the torpedoes” grab for scarce tax dollars, says Tim Welch. The union just wants the Legislature to have some clarity about the issue when the 2009 session begins, and a court ruling would provide it.

Michael Reitz has a better idea. Reitz, general counsel for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, proposes that collective bargaining sessions between the state and its unions be conducted in open public meetings, the same way the Spokane City Council, the Board of Spokane County Commissioners or the Spokane Public School Board meet.

That way the taxpayers who fund the salary and benefit packages that the state negotiates on their behalf could hear for themselves what the workers are seeking and why.

Last summer and fall, state officials were deeply engaged in settling nearly two dozen labor agreements worth more than $453 million. The economy was grim even then, but was destined to get even bleaker in November when a new state revenue forecast projected an additional $1.9 billion shortfall, bringing the fiscal gap for the 2009-11 biennium almost to a staggering $6 billion.

So when Gregoire revealed her skin-and-bones budget proposal last week, she promised the state that nobody would like it. And nobody did. Agencies and interest groups quickly lined up to say their respective shares of the belt-tightening were excessive and counter-productive.

Nobody reacted with more flair than the Washington Federation of State Employees, which had bargained on behalf of some 40,000 people for average 2 percent pay hikes. Pay hikes that Gregoire left out of her budget, prompting the union’s lawsuit.

State law, says the governor, prohibits her from asking the Legislature for the funds, even though the state had agreed to the contract, if they aren’t financially feasible. Judging by the depth and brutality of reductions that would be imposed by Gregoire’s budget, from social services to higher education, pay raises for people with state jobs would seem to be self-evidently unfeasible.

Welch, though, says that is the very least union members were willing to accept when they were surveyed during contract negotiations. To our knowledge, nobody surveyed the taxpayers to find out what was the very most they were willing to pay.

Which is one of the reasons Reitz’s proposal for open bargaining sessions makes sense. Clearly, members of the public are stakeholders in the contract agreements; they not only pay the bills, they receive the services.

One state court has already ruled that notes taken by bargaining teams for the state and its unions are public records, although not until after the Legislature approves the contract they produce.

It’s time for the state to go the next step, as some other states have done, and open the sessions themselves to the public. How could that do other than serve the public interest?


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