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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Lincoln County and the Teamsters missed a chance for cooperative transparency

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Anyone following Jim Kershner’s “100 Years Ago Today” column knows 1917 was a time of violent struggle in the labor union movement.

We’re long past the age of street fights; now unions seek their members’ best interest through legal means. Last weekend, Teamsters Local 690 celebrated its 100th anniversary. Val Holstrom, principal officer of Local 690, earnestly cares about his members. He oversees five business agents who serve 3,000 people under 105 contracts, both public and private, across Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

Holstrom worked for a local concrete company before stepping out to take on his leadership role. He is concerned about the coming shortage of the modern Teamster with a commercial driver’s license instead of a wagon and horses. These are good family-wage jobs, providing both mental and physical challenges with an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of a job well done every day.

He’s proud of the Teamsters’ tradition of service. It was the strength of Teamsters traditions and their strong management structure that led the Lincoln County commissioned and noncommissioned officers to disband a stand-alone guild and select the Teamsters as their bargaining representative.

It has not gone smoothly.

Last Wednesday, the Teamsters and the Lincoln County commissioners sat in front of the Public Employment Relations Committee for a hearing over alleged unfair labor practices at the negotiations. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Their lawyers sat facing the PERC hearing examiner, two for each side. Teamsters Business Agent Joe Kuhn and Commissioners Rob Coffman, Mark Stedman and Scott Hutsell were stuck in the back of the room.

Teamsters attorney Mike McCarthy was warming up to cross-examine Commissioner Hutsell, and commented on the Hutsell name on photos in the hallways of the courthouse. Hutsell’s grandfather, Lew, served as sheriff and later as county commissioner. His Uncle Bill was a judge in the 1940s. The tradition of service is strong in Lincoln County, too.

Those traditions collided in front of the hearing examiner.

Much of the questioning focused on the complaints actually filed with PERC over procedural issues, but everyone in the room could see the elephant. Public employee negotiations in Washington have traditionally been closed to the public. By exercising their discretion to open the doors to public employee bargaining, the Lincoln County commissioners are setting a statewide precedent. The Teamsters have consistently objected, asking to keep the status quo. Change is hard.

Being a precedent-setter in a litigious world only works if you’ve got deep pockets or pro bono backup. The Teamsters have deep national pockets. The county commissioners have pro bono representation. McCarthy called the county commissioners the “unwitting pawns” of the Freedom Foundation.

There were stifled chuckles from the back of the room. When everyone has an agenda, nobody’s an unwitting pawn.

Lincoln County residents traditionally prefer lower taxes paying for just enough government and no more. Hutsell testified the county has dropped 25 positions in the last nine years, running lean under strong management. But the sheriff’s office was hurting, with no means to compete regionally for staff.

The commissioners knew it would be tough to convince skeptical voters to pass a sales tax increase in November 2016. They needed a bold move. They made it, passing Resolution 16-21 on Sept. 6, 2016, establishing “From this day forward, Lincoln County shall conduct all collective bargaining contract negotiations in a manner that is open to the public.” The sales tax passed with 58 percent support. Agenda accomplished.

The Freedom Foundation’s agenda is to open public employee negotiations similar to Oregon, and eventually turn Washington into a right-to-work state. They publish a resolution template, which Lincoln County used to write their resolution. The Freedom Foundation’s goals are served by providing pro bono legal counsel to the county.

The Teamsters’ agenda is to protect their members. They object to the Freedom Foundation’s goals as an existential threat, and see what should be a simple negotiation in a small county as a beachhead to be pushed back at all costs.

It’s a tragically missed opportunity. Instead of working out how to negotiate in public, everybody lawyered up for a fight. The only pawns in this game are the officers.