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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Union radio ads against Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French the latest drama in Washington’s debate on open bargaining

The Spokane County courthouse is pictured.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

There’s a battle being waged on Spokane County’s radio airwaves, and it’s the latest drama in an ongoing debate over transparency with union bargaining in Washington.

One side’s radio ads accuse Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French of disrespecting public employees by refusing to negotiate new employment contracts.

The opposition’s counter ads back the county’s decision to make union collective bargaining negotiations open to the public.

At its heart, the radio war between the union-leading Washington State Council of County and City Employees and the conservative Washington Policy Center is over whether unions should be able to negotiate contracts behind closed doors.

Union ad calls out Kerns and French 1

Union ads call out French and Kerns 2

Washington Policy Center ads support public union negotiations

The debate began in 2018, when Kerns and French passed a resolution that required union contract talks – which have historically been private – to be public.

The county and the Council of County and City Employees disagree on whether the resolution was legal.

Similar collective bargaining fights are happening in Lincoln County and the city of Spokane.

Union leaders say public negotiations would weaken organized labor and hurt workers.

Kerns and French, as well as conservative groups including the Washington Policy Center and the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, argue taxpayers should be able to watch negotiations.

In addition to the overall collective bargaining debate, there’s a more immediate reason union leaders bought the radio ads, which are running on 10 or so local stations five to seven times per day.

Gordon Smith, who works for the Council of County and City Employees and represents roughly 1,100 Spokane County workers, said he hopes the ads pressure Kerns and French to negotiate contracts in private for county jail and Geiger Corrections Center employees. Corrections employees are being paid under the terms of their old contract, which expired on Dec. 31, 2019.

The main reason for buying radio airtime is to bring the county to the table to bargain a new contract for corrections employees, he said.

The corrections contracts expired first, but Smith said all of his county employee contracts have expired as of Dec. 31.

In addition to radio ads, the Council of County and City Employees bought billboard space at Bernard Street and Riverside Avenue and has another billboard coming to Monroe Street and Broadway Avenue, near the county campus. Smith said his organization will lead a picketing campaign at the county campus this month.

The county and unions have offered to meet but haven’t due to the stalemate over whether the meetings should be private.

French said he understands corrections employees have gone a long time without a new contract, but he’s not willing to budge.

“I’d be anxious to get a new contract, too,” French said. “But it’ll be negotiated in the light of day.”

The debate

From the union perspective, private collective bargaining meetings were working just fine.

“Since the late ’50s, we’ve had a decent relationship with Spokane County,” Smith said. “We don’t always agree, of course, but it’s been businesslike, professional, civil.”

But there has been a national push from conservative groups, including the fervently anti-union Freedom Foundation, to make union negotiations public. The Washington Policy Center’s ad argues that if unions have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t fear public meetings.

Kerns and French said the issue isn’t complicated – they just want transparency.

“This comes down to one issue,” Kerns said. “We feel that bargaining should be done in the public. We are bargaining with public dollars. The unions feel this should be in private, not accessible to the taxpayers.”

Three smaller unions for county employees, including two for public works, have been bargaining in public since the 2018 resolution. They are not part of the Council of County and City Employees.

Smith said if the county wanted to make negotiations public, it should have bargained with the unions to make that change.

Plus, he argued the process already is transparent, since the county discusses the tentative contracts in public meetings before finalizing them and people can see the contracts on the county website after they’ve been approved.

Proponents of open bargaining aren’t really advocating for transparency, Smith said, they just want to weaken unions and ensure public employees receive less pay.

“Public employee unions are one of the few obstacles left to corporate interests,” he said. “So that’s why we’re under attack.”

Unions don’t have anything to hide, Smith said, but there are still reasons to keep negotiations private.

For one, people could take meeting recordings and use quotes out of context to make unions look bad, Smith said.

Also, public settings aren’t always conducive to good communication, Smith said. He noted that when he’s bargaining with Coeur d’Alene on behalf of their employees, the meetings are public, but no one shows up and it’s not a problem. But he said, in theory, people antagonistic to unions could disrupt negotiations at public meetings.

“Having the potential for strangers to be involved can have a chilling effect on open communications, particularly when you know people in the audience could have an agenda,” Smith said.

Smith also said that union employee volunteers could become public figures if meetings aren’t kept private. He said that wouldn’t be fair, since the volunteers never signed up for that publicity, unlike elected officials.

Power of precedent

On Monday and Tuesday, the Council of County and City Employees and Spokane County met before the Public Employment Relations Commission to present their arguments for and against public collective bargaining.

The two sides’ attorneys have 30 days to send their briefs to the commission’s hearing officer. After that, the commission has another 90 days to make a decision.

The decision could be in favor of the unions, Spokane County, or some sort of hybrid. If one of the parties doesn’t like the commission’s ruling, it can appeal to the commission’s director. If the parties don’t like the director’s decision, the argument would go to the courts.

Smith said he doesn’t want to go through that long process.

French and Kerns emphasized that it appears the public doesn’t want union negotiations to remain private. In November 2019, Spokane put the question on the ballot and 77% of city voters said they wanted public bargaining.

“In the most democratic part of the county, even they want to make sure that these contracts are negotiated in the public,” French said. “So there’s no confusion about what the public wants, and now it’s up to the elected officials to try and deliver on that commitment to the public.”

The Washington State Council of County and City Employees is suing Spokane in an effort to keep city union negotiations private.

Smith said his organization is fighting hard to keep Spokane County union negotiations private because the final decision here could set a precedent for the rest of the state.

“This is ground zero for us,” Smith said. “We’ve got to be careful, because whatever happens here is going to affect us statewide.”