In 2018, the Spokane County commissioners voted to make all union contract bargaining sessions public.
Washington State contract negotiations between public employees and local governments have historically been held behind closed doors, so it was a major move and a break from decades of precedent. Labor leaders bashed the change while conservative policy groups applauded it.
Three years after the commissioners’ decision, Spokane County has finalized its first publicly negotiated union contract.
At a June 29 meeting, county commissioners announced that the 59-member Spokane County Public Works Guild had agreed to a new contract that will last through Dec. 31, 2023.
“This is a big day,” Commissioner Josh Kerns said in the June 29 meeting. “This is a momentous occasion for Spokane County because it’s the first of many agreements that have been brought out of the shadows.”
The public works guild contract is just one small piece of a larger labor bargaining war between Spokane County and its employees’ unions regarding whether contraction negotiations should be conducted in private.
There are similar battles happening in Lincoln County and the city of Spokane. The ultimate outcome of the debate will determine the future of union contract bargaining rules in the Evergreen State.
Labor leaders want to keep bargaining private because they say it will ensure better contracts for employees and prevent anti-labor groups from deceptively editing negotiation recordings to turn public opinion against unions.
Conservative policy groups, which have lobbied hard throughout Washington and in Spokane County to make union negotiations public, argue public bargaining is a win for government transparency.
Kerns and Spokane County Commissioner Al French emphasize that Spokane residents appear to want public union negotiations. In 2019, the city of Spokane put the question on the ballot and 77% of voters favored public bargaining.
The public works guild contract doesn’t signal the end of the bargaining fight. The guild represents a relatively small percentage of county employees while the bulk of the county’s unions – representing more than 1,000 employees – are still fighting to keep negotiations private.
Unions and the county are at a stalemate. Both say they’re willing to negotiate, but they’re not budging on whether those negotiations should be public or private.
The stalemate is starting to have consequences. Some county contracts have already lapsed or are in danger of lapsing. Because of that, the Council of County and City Employees began an ad campaign last month in an effort to bring the county to the bargaining table in private.
John Preston, president of the public works guild and the department’s information technology coordinator, said his guild initially stood alongside the county’s other unions in opposition to public bargaining.
“I don’t think they should have done it unilaterally,” Preston said of the county’s 2018 decision. “They should have talked with labor.”
But ultimately the public works guild agreed to public bargaining for a few reasons.
First, Preston said the guild anticipated no one was going to show up to the negotiations anyway, so they’d effectively still be private. That assumption proved correct – Preston noted no members of the public attended the bargaining sessions.
Second, Preston said the guild believed if the argument went to the courts, the county was going to win.
And third, the guild felt its contract requests were reasonable, so there was no reason to fear open meetings, Preston said.
Preston has bargained for public works for more than a decade. He said the public meetings didn’t feel much different from the dozens of private ones he’s been a part of negotiating.
“It felt strange to have it recorded, but you kind of got used to that,” he said.
In this case, open meetings didn’t hurt the public works guild, Preston said. But he added that in theory, it’s possible the public meetings could give the county new leverage in negotiations.
Even though the public works guild agreed to negotiate in public, Preston said he supports the unions that are fighting to keep bargaining private.
“I feel they should do what their members think is best for them,” Preston said.
“I completely stand with those unions, those bargaining units, if that’s what they want to do, and respect their decision to do so.”