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Unwilling to negotiate in public, labor union sues Spokane over new charter rule on bargaining

UPDATED: Thu., May 6, 2021

Spokane City Hall.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane City Hall. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The largest public employees union in Spokane is suing the city over a new law that requires collective bargaining be conducted in open view.

Local 270, which represents about 1,000 city employees, filed a lawsuit in Spokane County Superior Court on Monday that claims the charter amendment approved by city voters in 2019 violates state law.

The suit asks the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its charter requirements and declare that it is contrary to state law.

The union is the latest to join the fight against open collective bargaining policies that have become more common across the state. Local 492, which represents some employees at the Spokane County Jail, is similarly working to overturn such a policy adopted by the Spokane County Board of Commissioners in 2018.

The Spokane city charter amendment, approved by 77% of voters, conflicts with the rights granted to unions in Washington, Local 270’s lawsuit argues.

Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, told The Spokesman-Review that there are clear exceptions made for labor negotiations in the state’s Open Public Meetings Act – and that state law trumps city law.

“In our eyes, we felt that there was a conflict between the city charter amendment that was put forward and our state law,” Cavanaugh said.

The charter amendment was passed through an initiative spearheaded by Michael Cathcart, who won a seat on the Spokane City Council in the same election. He called the union’s action “disappointing,” but not surprising.

Cathcart points to the same state law to defend the city’s position. The “right to know,” he said, is “the basis of open public meetings in the state of Washington.”

“When you’re sort of working against a transparent process, the first question I ask is, what is it you’re trying to conceal?” Cathcart asked.

The labor agreement between the city and Local 270 expired at the end of 2020. The city demanded the negotiations on a new contract be held in open session, but the union balked.

“We’re ready to negotiate now, we have been for a while, the realities are we’re just concerned about how things will be processed,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a fairness issue for us – why should we have to bend to their wishes?”

City spokesman Brian Coddington said Mayor Nadine Woodward is committed to carrying out negotiations as prescribed by the city charter.

“This really illustrates the challenge we have in moving forward with bargaining,” Coddington said. “It’s complicated landscape and one that we’re working through with each of the contracts.”

The 270 lawsuit is similar to a case based in Lincoln County, where Teamsters Local 690 alleged the county’s open negotiation policy amounted to an unfair labor practice. The Supreme Court declined to review the case after an appellate court ruled last November that both the county and union had committed unfair labor practices.

“No court has really wanted to make a decision on who gets to decide if the meetings are going to be open or closed, and that’s still the case,” said Caleb Jon Vandenbos, an attorney with the Freedom Foundation representing Lincoln County.

That decision may eventually fall in the hands of the Public Employment Relations Commission, Vandenbos surmised.

The appellate ruling did clarify, however, that a failure to negotiate new ground rules did not require the two parties to revert to its old standard which, in Lincoln County’s case, was closed-door sessions.

Vandenbos interpreted the ruling as meaning “the parties don’t have to keep doing it the way they’ve always been doing it.”

The effort to require open negotiations with public employees has been pushed by groups like the Freedom Foundation, a Libertarian-leaning think tank, across Washington and the country.

Advocates note that employee salaries generally make up a sizable portion of government spending. Unions have fought back, stating that governments don’t have the right to unilaterally impose ground rules for negotiations.

Both Cathcart and Cavanaugh believe the Lincoln County case is distinct in principle from the one the union is pursuing against the city of Spokane.

Cavanaugh notes that public employees in Lincoln County filed an unfair labor practice through the Public Employment Relations Commission. Local 270 went straight to the courts.

“The ultimate goal is the same – to define negotiations,” Cavanaugh said.

Cathcart believes the city of Spokane’s requirement is fundamentally different from that of Lincoln County or even Spokane County, both of which adopted a public negotiation policy by a vote of the Board of County Commissioners.

Spokane’s requirement is embedded in the city charter.

The union fears that negotiating in public will politicize the process and, according to the 270 lawsuit, invite “posturing.”

“A way to say it is, gamesmanship becomes more of a part of negotiations,” Cavanaugh said.

Cathcart points to places like Pullman Public Schools, where negotiations with employees are conducted in open session, and more than a dozen other states where such allowances are made.

In those places, Cathcart said, negotiations have “not come to a lurching halt.”

“If there’s the opportunity for the public to observe, I actually think it – assuming everybody is acting in good faith – it would possibly expedite the process,” Cathcart said.

In Spokane, closed-door negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild stretched on for more than four years before a contract was finally agreed upon earlier this year.

“That probably would have been resolved had the public had the ability to observe that process,” Cathcart said.

But Cavanaugh points to the union’s long record of successful contract negotiations with the city.

“In the majority of places, they don’t negotiate in the open and it seems to work fine,” Cavanaugh said.

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