Governments across the state could soon take a step toward greater transparency depending on a state decision about open collective bargaining – the practice of allowing the public to be present for union-represented public employee contract negotiations.
The pending decision, expected from state Public Employee Relations Commission in January, is the result of a complaint filed by Teamsters Local No. 690 after Lincoln County made its bargaining sessions public.
The ruling won’t determine the legality of making the meetings public – that’s allowable under the state Open Public Meetings Act. Rather, the commission will decide who is at fault if a union refuses to bargain openly. The ruling is expected to potentially encourage more cities, counties and school districts to open their bargaining sessions.
“I know there are other counties interested that will probably open their meetings but would love to see the path blazed once,” said Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst with the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation. “It’s sort of like, ‘You go first.’”
In the Lincoln County case, the Teamsters – along with other opponents, largely unions or workers represented by them – says it isn’t fair for personnel issues to be debated in public. Techniques such as over- or undershooting wage increases or grandstanding used by one side or the other to come to a favorable agreement could be misunderstood by the public, which typically doesn’t have experience with bargaining, opponents say. And, open collective bargaining could weaken the union’s ability to represent workers.
Representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Teamsters and the International Association of Firefighters – all unions that represent Yakima employees – did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
But Lund and other advocates say opening the meetings lessens the possibility that either negotiator will use bullying techniques such as pounding the table or yelling. It also likely would put a stop to outrageous demands, such as 50 percent raises, just for the sake of starting negotiations higher, in addition to simply making the government more transparent.
With so much taxpayer money devoted to paying public workers, some government officials, including Yakima City Councilman Bill Lover, say the benefits outweigh the potential costs.
“The majority of our budget is paying salary and benefits,” Lover said. “Certainly the public should have more input over what’s actually being negotiated.”
The city of Yakima has not yet seriously considered opening negotiation meetings, said Mayor Kathy Coffey. Members of the Board of Yakima County Commissioners were not available for comment.
Only two Washington state counties – Lincoln and Kittitas – have opened their meetings. No municipalities have taken the step.
“In Lincoln County, we don’t pass taxes for no reason,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Rob Coffman. “So we thought we needed to do everything in our power to demonstrate to the taxpayers we were going to spend their money as openly and transparently as possible.”
In 2016, the county was the first in the state to open its collective bargaining meetings. The county didn’t have enough money to hire more deputies needed to combat crime and by opening the negotiations to the public, residents would have an opportunity to learn how much the county needed to raise taxes to be able to afford the protection, Coffman said.
A year later, though, the county still hasn’t successfully negotiated a union contract because of the complaint filed by the Teamsters.
Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell said he was told by county residents and union members who are against open collective bargaining that it could hurt good working relationships between cities and unions because some union representatives believe opening the meetings is disparaging.
He also heard from union members who thought the change was unfair to them because their contract negotiations would be open to the public while their nonunion counterparts would be spared the same scrutiny. But Jewell noted all decisions about nonunion-represented employees are made in public as well.
“Any time you change anything, there’s always going to be someone that objects,” he said.
Lund, Jewell, Coffman and others who have spoken in favor of opening negotiations say there are many other benefits. For example, residents will know what’s on the table and be able to contact their representatives with thoughts on certain provisions such as pay or types of service, Lund said.
Open collective bargaining can also be good for union members, who can be certain what their representatives are fighting for.
“One piece of the bargaining unit may be unhappy because they ask for things but they’re told they didn’t get it,” Lund said. “But they never know if that was ever asked for. They never know how the actual negotiation went.”
But Lund notes that opening bargaining sessions to the public isn’t likely to make a large difference in what actually ends up in the final contracts. He points to Washington’s two nearest states – Idaho and Oregon, both of which have statewide open collective bargaining – as evidence. After speaking with representatives in those states, Lund says he learned open collective bargaining mostly weeds out the extreme positions and brings both sides to the middle quicker.
“If the union comes and asks for a 21 percent raise, you’re just going to split the difference without having to explain in a closed meeting,” he said. “But it’s a publicly indefensible position. The fact that it could be reported or observed or members could see it, it’s less likely to happen in an open scenario.”