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Spin Control: How did state reach its deal with its unions? Have to wait to see

Washington state employees are looking at good wage increases over the next two years as a result of a tentative agreement between their unions and the negotiating team representing the governor’s office.

By some estimates, it will raise the cost of wages and benefits about $1.6 billion over the next two years if the Legislature approves the deal as part of the 2023-25 budget it must pass next year.

In mid-September, the unions were accusing the governor’s team of all manner of unkind things, like skimping on public safety, disrespecting and lowballing them, and proposing dangerously low and unsafe staffing levels. Roughly a week later, in announcing their tentative agreement, the unions were touting “the largest compensation package in history,” with a proposed raise of 4% in the first year and 3% in the second, plus $1,000 bonuses for employees who got COVID shots.

So apparently the unions went from being somewhere south of Rodney Dangerfield to cranking up the chorus of “We Are the Champions” by Queen in a few short days. One might wonder why. But one would have to wait.

Some folks, including Republicans in the Legislature and budget watchers at the Washington Policy Center, have long complained that state labor negotiations are closed. Lawmakers, the press and most of all, the public – who pays those salaries through taxes – aren’t allowed in the room during talks. They only see the final tentative agreement after the two sides shake hands. The Policy Center has backed a series of local initiatives to require contract talks between local governments and their unions to be open, which usually pass with healthy margins but sometimes wind up in court.

As someone who has sat at a negotiating table – Full disclosure: The reporters, copy editors and photographers at The Spokesman-Review have a small in-house union of which I was once president – I’m not a fan of opening up the contract talks to anyone who wants to pop in any time. Pretty sure that the business executives on Policy Center’s various boards and committees wouldn’t want their wage discussions with employees open to the general public.

Before you say “Well, taxpayers aren’t paying for private company wage increases,” you obviously weren’t paying attention when businesses argued against raising the minimum wage on the grounds that it would drive the cost of all goods and services up to the general public … which is pretty much the same as “taxpayers.”

Context is important in labor talks.

It is common for workers to swing for the fences in their opening request and management to try to lowball the union with its first counter offer. For one contract opener, the newspaper union asked for 10% raises, knowing that we’d be negotiating way down from there. Management came in with a response best summed up as “we think we’re paying you too much right now,” knowing that they’d be negotiating up. After a few caustic words on both sides, we got down to the serious business of negotiations.

As the chief negotiator, I always told my members that the management’s first offer wasn’t serious and suspected that my counterpart got a good laugh with the publisher over the union’s opener. As talks went on, I always told members where things stood when they asked, but didn’t make a point of giving them a play-by-play after each session. They got the full details on the back-and-forth when we had a tentative agreement so they could decide how they wanted to vote.

So keeping things on the down-low during state employee contracts doesn’t bother me. It might be a good idea to have the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate budget committees sit in, so they can make an informed case for or against the contracts when that part of the spending plan shows up. But while I’m a huge fan of open meetings and open government, I’ve never sided with the Policy Center and its budget watchdog, Jason Mercier, on fully open contract talks.

I do agree, however, with Mercier’s recent request for the state to release the opening offers on both sides. I’d even go farther, and say all the offers of both sides put on the table should now be released, to explain how the two sides came together.

The Office of Financial Management rejected Mercier’s request for the opening offers. The contracts have not yet been approved by the Legislature, it said, so the agreements are tentative and anything leading up to them would be “exempt as part of the deliberative process” under the state Public Records Act.

The problem with that reasoning is that the contract approval equals biennial budget approval, which isn’t going to happen for at least six months. The Legislature rarely rejects the negotiated contract and can’t even make changes, like shaving the raises by a fraction of a percentage point or reducing the bonus for getting a shot designed to keep workers from getting sick.

If the Legislature balks – unlikely, but not impossible, should lightning strike and Republicans take control of one chamber in the upcoming election – the sides would have to go back to the bargaining table and come up with a new tentative agreement, which would add who knows how long to the release of documents.

Plus, while the Public Records Act may allow the state to withhold those documents, it doesn’t absolutely require it. A 1980 attorney general’s opinion said exemptions are “permissive rather than mandatory.”

In a situation where the state allegedly went from being a penurious miser to a beneficent provider of the largest contract in history, it would be in everybody’s interest to shed a little more light on the path they trod.

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