Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County’s fight with its unions over bargaining in public comes to an end

Local governments like Spokane County can't force its unions to negotiate labor contracts in public, the state Supreme Court ruled.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Four years after it began, Spokane County has finally lost the fight over whether union contract negotiations should be held in public or private.

The state Supreme Court last month ruled unanimously that the city of Spokane could not force unions to negotiate labor contracts in public meetings. Forcing unions to negotiate in public would be illegal, the court said, because state law requires all jurisdictions to abide by uniform bargaining rules.

While the Supreme Court decision specifically applied to Spokane, where 77% of voters in 2019 voted in favor of making union negotiations public, it also brought an end to the county’s disagreement with its own unions.

Spokane County commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French passed a law in 2018 requiring union negotiations to be public. Commissioner Mary Kuney was out of town on county business that day and unable to vote on the change.

Kerns and French, who did not respond to requests for comment, said the law was a win for government transparency. Public funds pay county employees’ wages, they said, so the public deserved to see bargaining sessions firsthand.

Labor leaders disagreed. Mandating public negotiations was simply an attack on unions and an effort to weaken their bargaining positions, they said.

Greg Beeman, who represents Spokane County’s largest union, Council 2 of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, said forcing unions to negotiate in public would have hurt the county’s roughly 2,000 workers.

“If you have to show your hand to the entire world before you go into negotiations, you’re basically guaranteeing that you’re going to get the worst possible deal,” Beeman said. “If everybody at the table was able to see all the cards, you couldn’t play the game.”

Since Kerns and French passed the resolution in late 2018, many of the county’s smaller unions agreed to negotiate in public. No outside observers ever showed up at the meetings.

“We’re still hopeful that bargaining groups will want to, and choose to, negotiate in public,” Spokane County Human Resources Director Ashley Cameron said.

Cameron said she hopes both sides of the debate recognize the importance of transparency.

“At the end of the day our goal, and my goal, is to ensure that our employees understand that they’re valued and respected,” she said. “The leadership at Spokane County is dedicated to doing the right thing for our employees and our constituents.”

County Commissioner Chris Jordan, a Democrat who took office last week, said he wouldn’t have supported the resolution if he’d had a chance to vote on it and called it “a solution in search of a problem.”

Beeman noted that Kerns and French’s resolution impacted county employees even if it ultimately failed.

The resolution initiated a stalemate between the county and many of its unions that, in some cases, lasted about two years. That stalemate prevented the county and unions from renegotiating expired labor contracts, which meant employees didn’t receive raises. The county traditionally has not retroactively paid employees when it agrees to new contracts, Beeman said.

“It cost each individual employee thousands and thousands of dollars in lost wages,” he said.

Beeman said he’s encouraged that the Supreme Court decision was unanimous.

“It’s done, it’s closed, it’s a dead issue,” he said. “Anybody who tries to start it again, they’re just going to get completely shut down.”