The Senate Commerce & Labor Committee held a work session yesterday on “public transparency in collective bargaining negotiations.” Despite the strong mandate for government transparency declared by the people in the Open Public Meetings Act, government employee contracts are usually negotiated in secret, meaning an important and costly taxpayer expense is hidden until the final bill comes due. There have been several efforts in recent years to close this loophole to the people’s right to know, but they have not been successful so far at the state level. At the local level, however, Lincoln County, the Pullman and Tukwila School districts have blazed the trail in fulfilling the strong mandate for transparency provided by the state Open Public Meetings Act. To build trust with taxpayers, government officials at all levels should do the same, by adopting public employee contract transparency requirements.
This was the message I provided when testifying at the Senate work session. Joining me in making this recommendation for contract transparency were Toby Nixon (President of the Washington Coalition for Open Government) and Maxford Nelsen (Director of Labor Policy for the Freedom Foundation). Offering a different perspective were Pat Thompson (AFSCME Council 2) and Joe Kuhn (Teamsters Joint Council 28).
Lincoln County, the Pullman and Tukwila School districts have made these statements on why they ended collective bargaining secrecy for government employment contracts.
Both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they are being represented during collective bargaining negotiations; and the impression of secret deal-making will be eliminated by making collective bargaining negotiations open to the public.
Pullman School Board member Susan Weed explained the reason for adopting a policy of contract openness:
It’s not our money. I just think it’s important that everyone knows what’s going on.
In a press release the Tukwila School District said:
By opening the collective bargaining process to public view, the District will provide an incentive for both parties (management and labor) to take timely, reasonable, publicly defendable positions that allow the community to better understand the budget and other implications of collective bargaining contracts.
State and local employment contracts should not be negotiated in secret. The public provides the money for these agreements. Taxpayers should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make on our behalf.
Government employees should also be able to see firsthand what offers and counteroffers are being made by union executives in their name. A policy of open public meetings would identify whether one side or the other is being unreasonable, and would quickly reveal who, if anyone, is acting in bad faith.
It is important to remember as declared by the Open Public Meetings Act that the people “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good” for them to know, and “the people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
The people have a right to know how public spending decisions are made on their behalf. Ending collective bargaining secrecy and opening government union contract negotiations to the public, as other states and cities have done, is a practical and ethical way to achieve that standard.
Jason Mercier is the Director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center and is based in the Tri-Cities. He serves on the boards of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Candidate Verification, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. Jason is an ex-officio for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce.