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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Chris Cargill: There is no reason to keep collective bargaining talks secret

By Chris Cargill Washington Policy Center

You may have heard one of the radio ads. You may see today’s protest at the Spokane County Courthouse. Local unions say they have had it with people’s desire for government transparency.

What’s the issue? Unions want to keep collective bargaining talks – the regular negotiations over government employee salary and benefits – secret and hidden from public view. They are upset that both Spokane County and the city of Spokane passed a popular measure requiring transparency. In the city’s case, it’s the law – passed by nearly 80% of voters.

For many years, these negotiations with unions that represent local government workers have been conducted behind closed doors. Citizens were not informed about the public spending agreement until the deal was done – even though they are the ones paying the bill.

Union members didn’t know what was being negotiated on their behalf until the negotiations were done.

Union contracts for salary and benefits account for a huge portion of public spending. It makes sense that they should not be negotiated in secret.

The city law approved by voters, as well as the county resolution sponsored by Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, allows government employees to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name.

A policy of open public meetings identifies, for taxpayers and union members, whether one side or the other is being deceptive or unreasonable. Openness would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith in spending public money.

Taxpayers should be able to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf. Local media should be allowed to cover the process and inform the public, so that citizens can be aware how public money is being spent. Transparency in public spending is never a bad thing.

So, it is curious unions are putting up such a fight against openness. In late December, one union leader sent a letter to the city saying they “won’t allow it” and threatened a “bar room brawl just may break out in the streets.” Unions have also filed a lawsuit against Spokane city and county taxpayers.

Unions know collective bargaining transparency is not unusual. It is the norm in nearly half the states, including neighboring Idaho. In fact, Gordon Smith of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees told The Spokesman-Review last month that the negotiations held in Coeur d’Alene are “not a problem.”

Spokane County just announced this week a new contract negotiated in public with the Public Works Guild. John Preston, president of the guild, said the contract requests were reasonable, “so there was no reason to fear open meetings.”

Open collective bargaining talks are not controversial and there is no reason to keep them secret.

Explaining why the Pullman School District embraces collective bargaining transparency, the district’s finance manager, Diane Hodge, said, “We just think it’s fair for all of the members to know what’s being offered on both sides.”

Lincoln, Kittitas, Ferry and other counties have also adopted a policy of transparent talks.

The public should always have the right to know what trade-offs and promises led to final and binding contract agreements – especially when those agreements lock in millions and sometimes billions of dollars of annual taxpayer spending.

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act says that the people “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good” for them to know, and “the people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Good government is transparent government. What are union bosses trying to hide?

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, an independent research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Olympia and Seattle. Online at

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