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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane city, county union workers rally amid controversy surrounding public labor negotiations

Spokane County Courthouse.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane city and county union workers held a demonstration Friday amid stalled negotiations on new labor contracts due to disagreements over negotiating the deals in public.

Spokane County commissioners voted in 2018 to stop negotiating union contracts in private. Government transparency advocates have lauded the decision, while labor leaders say the measure is unconstitutional, as they seek to keep negotiations behind closed doors.

Late last month, county commissioners announced an agreement with the Spokane County Public Works Guild that represents the county’s first publicly negotiated contract.

Friday’s demonstration at the Spokane County Courthouse was organized by the Washington State Council of County and City Employees.

Chris Dugovich, executive director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said private negotiations have never been an issue with the city or county in the past. He believes the idea has been promoted to city and county leaders by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“These commissioners … need to take a civics lesson,” he said. “You can’t supersede state law with a county or city ordinance. There’s many reasons for that. Basically, it’s because these laws would all be piecemeal throughout the state.”

Commissioner Josh Kerns said in a statement that while he supports their right to organize, he feels many union members “have been led astray by the narrative being pushed by union leadership.”

“We believe that our policies are completely legal, and we have been and remain completely open to begin the negotiation process for a new contract,” he said in the statement. “With that said, we remain steadfast in our commitment to keep these negotiations open to the public.”

In 2019, 77% of voters in the City of Spokane voted in favor of public bargaining when the question was put on the ballot.

Kerns said the Public Works Guild contract proves public bargaining can work.

“The public, union members, and the media all deserve the opportunity to witness these negotiations in the light of day,” he said, “especially when these agreements commit the County to millions of dollars in the taxpayers’ money.”