The Spokane County Board of Commissioners earlier this month voted to approve a resolution opening the county’s collective bargaining negotiations with unions representing county employees to public observation. In so doing, the commissioners adopted a forward-looking government transparency reform and set an example the rest of the state should follow.
Collective bargaining agreements negotiated by public employers and government unions determine the wages and benefits public employees receive. They’re also policy documents that can have a significant effect on how government agencies operate and the services they provide.
Unlike in private industry, unions representing government employees negotiate with elected officials or their representatives. This gives unions a big incentive to try and elect the officials that will sit opposite them at the bargaining table when negotiating over how to spend public funds.
Unfortunately, the Legislature in 1990 exempted these negotiations from the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, allowing – but not requiring – that they be conducted behind closed doors. Ever since, union members, taxpayers and the media have generally been excluded from observing the proceedings.
After years of unions blocking attempts to get the Washington Legislature to adopt collective bargaining transparency, Lincoln County’s Board of Commissioners in 2016, with Freedom Foundation assistance, became the first jurisdiction in Washington to allow the public to observe the process. Several other local governments have since followed suit, including Kittitas and Ferry counties and the Pullman School District. Spokane County is the largest public employer in the state to adopt collective bargaining transparency so far.
In some cases, the parties involved have adapted to the change. Open negotiations in the Pullman School District, for instance, reportedly went smoothly.
In Lincoln County, however, Teamsters Local 690 refused to negotiate publicly partway through the process, forcing the county to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the union with the Public Employment Relations Commission. The union countered by filing its own complaint against the county.
However, the negotiator for the Teamsters told the state Senate’s Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee this year that “it wasn’t a stressful situation to bargain in the public,” though he still opposed the policy.
Hopefully Spokane’s unions do the right thing and embrace the more transparent process.
At least 13 other states, including both Oregon and Idaho, provide for a more open collective bargaining process than Washington does, and the sky hasn’t caved in.
In fact, some unions have pressed for open bargaining as a way to improve member participation and engagement. Merrie Najimy, an official for the Concord Teachers Association in New Hampshire, explained in 2016 how her union had to fight the school board to open its negotiations and that doing so helped “bring our union back to life.”
Greater openness in negotiations ensures both sides behave reasonably and encourages them to reach agreement collaboratively, not confrontationally. It lets interested parties – whether local taxpayers, public employees, or city hall reporters – reach their own conclusions about what’s happening in bargaining, rather than being kept in the dark or receiving two different narratives from the union and the government about what’s happening in negotiations.
Change is never easy, but Eastern Washington leaders have shown it’s possible to make government operate more transparently by enacting this commonsense reform. It’s a model the rest of the state would do well to emulate.
Matthew Hayward is the Outreach Director for the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit working to promote individual liberty, free enterprise, and limited, accountable government.
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