Despite the fact that collective bargaining between government unions and public-sector employers determines the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars and regularly influences policy decisions in state and local government, such negotiations remain off limits to the public.
Legislation recently approved by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee would, if enacted, remove an exemption for collective bargaining from the state Open Public Meetings Act and allow the public to oversee government collective bargaining negotiations.
While SB 5329, introduced by Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), generated a contentious committee hearing and elicited some strong comments from labor union lobbyists and pro-union Democrats — one of whom referred to the bill as "idiocy" — the transparency measure passed out of the committee on a 4-3 party-line vote.
The Freedom Foundation has repeatedly called for increased transparency in collective bargaining and testified in support of the legislation. In the past year, many state newspapers and political observers, including the Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review, Tri-City Herald, The Olympian, The Columbian, the Washington Policy Center and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna have all called for public access to government collective bargaining.
Other states allow the public to have partial or complete access to government contract negotiations with labor unions, including at least Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas.
In his initial comments about the bill, Sen. Braun described SB 5329 as,
"...a simple transparency bill. Just to put it in perspective, in the last summer the governor's office negotiated $500 million worth of increases in costs with our state employees. Now, I'm not going to comment on whether that's a good idea or not a good idea. It may very well be the right thing to do. But the issue is, if you're going to have those level of discussions with $500 million of cost to our state voters, this ought to be public. This ought to be transparent. It ought to be visible to those that we work for."
The Freedom Foundation testified in favor of the legislation, as did the Washington Policy Center, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WACOG) — of which the Freedom Foundation is a member — and four concerned citizens.
Toby Nixon, president of WACOG, noted that some government agencies "are controlled more by their labor contracts than by the laws they operate under or the rules they're able to adopt themselves." He explained further that the decisions being made in collective bargaining "are policy questions." Nixon continued,
"We believe that the people of the state have the right to know whether the people that represent them in the discussions that result in these policy decisions are acting in the public interest. Likewise, we believe that the members of labor organizations have the right to know whether their representatives in those negotiations are correctly representing the interests of the workers."
Sandy Tarzwell, a citizen activist who worked to get the city of Shelton to conduct its collective bargaining negotiations publicly, expressed her support for the legislation, explaining:
"I've discussed collective bargaining and open meetings with many, many of my neighbors. When I suggest that collective bargaining could be done in open meetings the most common response I get is, 'Aren't they already? After all, they're dealing with my tax dollars.'"
The only testimony against the legislation came from two union lobbyists.
Sofia Aragon of the Washington State Nurses Association contended that keeping the negotiations out of the public eye was necessary to ensure "frank conversations between the parties" and bemoaned that "opening these meetings changes the dynamics of negotiations."
Vince Oliveri of Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 claimed that, while "[PTE] Local 17 is a full supporter of accountability and transparency in state government," he opposed SB 5329 on the grounds that it would "throw our collective bargaining process into chaos."
Echoing some of Aragon's points about how "difficult-but-necessary conversations" would be hindered by a transparent process, Oliveri noted the tone of negotiations could shift with public oversight. He also implied that only "educated and experienced" insiders who have built up trust between each other are qualified to "craft the best possible solutions for both the employer and the employees." He neglected to mention how the interests of taxpayers are served by conducting meetings in secret.
Some of the most telling comments came from the pro-union senators on the committee.
Longtime Teamster official Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle) couldn't come to terms with the need for public access to the negotiations, noting, "What does (seeing how the parties conduct themselves in collective bargaining) have to do with the public interest? I don't see any compelling public interest need there."
After Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center pointed out the potential conflict of interest inherent in the governor secretly negotiating over public money opposite his biggest campaign donors, Hasegawa shot back:
"The governor is responsible for representing the entire interests of the state of Washington, so I would take exception to the fact that you are saying that he is catering or any of the past governors or any future governors are catering to a special interest."
As the Freedom Foundation responded in the hearing, however,
"The fact is, we don't know (if the governor is catering to a private special interest group) because the negotiations are taking place behind closed doors. If he is, that would be something that the citizens of this state need to know and that can only be done through a more transparent process."
Watch the video footage of the testimony at the hearing below:
When the time came to vote on the bill, longtime UFCW official Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) and former communications director for the Washington State Labor Council Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) introduced two protest amendments — one to require public hospital districts to be subject to expansive open meetings requirements and one to require that tax appeals before Department of Revenue be open to the public. Conway admitted the amendments were "way outside the title of the bill" and were claimed they were intended "to expose the kind of idiocy we have going on here."
Committee Chair Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) responded to the proposed amendments by stating,
"The chair appreciates the satirical nature of both the previous amendments and if I thought it would impact whether you would support the underlying bill we might spend some more time on them, but I don't think you'd vote for the underlying bill anyhow."
The amendments were defeated and the bill approved on 4-3 party-line votes.
Watch the video footage of the committee vote below: