In recent months and years, the tide of public opinion has begun to dramatically shift in favor of bringing greater transparency to collective bargaining in the public sector, with newspapers and organizations around the state joining groups like the Freedom Foundation and Washington Policy Center in calling for reform.
Over the course of the past year, the Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review, Tri-City Herald, The Olympian, The Columbian and former state Attorney General Rob McKenna have all called for collective bargaining transparency.
Despite taking steps in that direction, however, the state Legislature has yet to act.
During the 2014 legislative session, Sen. John Braun (R-Chehalis) introduced SB 6183, which would have required collective bargaining negotiations between government agencies and labor unions to be open to the public unless both sides agreed to conduct them privately. Under current law, either party has the power to unilaterally close the meetings. The Freedom Foundation testified in favor of the legislation and several union lobbyists testified against. It passed out of the Senate Government Operations Committee with the committee's four Republicans voting in favor and the three Democrats voting against.
Despite the Majority Coalition Caucus' (MCC) control of the state Senate, the MCC-dominated Senate Rules Committee never referred the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote.
This year, Sen. Braun introduced SB 5329, a strengthened collective bargaining transparency bill requiring all public-sector collective bargaining negotiations to be open to the public all the time. While union lobbyists predictably opposed the legislation, SB 5329 was supported by groups like the Freedom Foundation, the Washington Policy Center, the Washington Coalition for Open Government and state newspapers. Several citizen activists also testified in favor of the legislation. Again, the bill passed out of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with the four Republicans voting in favor and the three Democrats opposed.
Despite Republicans winning outright control of the state Senate in 2014, however, the legislation again languished in the GOP-dominated Rules Committee without receiving a floor vote.
Several of the state's newspapers were none too pleased. The Spokesman Review had this to say about the Senate's lack of action:
"On the dark side, the Senate failed to move a bill that would've opened collective bargaining to the public. These negotiations involve some of the largest spending decisions government makes, but under changes made more than 10 years ago, the state placed a veil over the process.
SB 5329 would've ended the secret talks by lifting an exemption to the Public Records Act. The exemption blocks the release of records until the Legislature and the governor approve contracts. So the public, which pays for the salaries and benefits negotiated, cannot weigh in until it's too late. Changes in work conditions, a regular bargaining subject, are also kept under wraps.
Lifting the exemption would allow the public to follow along with the give and take. What are the concerns of workers? Are government negotiators looking out for taxpayers? What issues divide employees and management, and how might they affect the public?
Union representatives say secrecy is needed so both sides can speak frankly, but that's a tiresome excuse used by employees in all levels of government, including lawmakers, to shield activities from public view. SB 5329 would not block either side from holding strategy sessions, but once they engage each other, it should be considered a public meeting.
Collective bargaining isn't just a discussion. It's an act that bears significant consequences for the very people shut out of the process. Other states open the negotiations. Washington should do so again."
The Columbian editorial board was similarly unimpressed:
"Last week in Olympia, the Senate declined to move forward on a bill that would have opened to the public the collective bargaining negotiations that take place between officials and unions representing state workers. SB 5329 would have ended secret negotiations by lifting an exemption to the state's Public Records Act.
Proponents of the secrecy claim that the exemption facilitates negotiations by allowing both sides to speak freely without revealing to the public their tactics or their primary bargaining chips. And while it is understandable that opening negotiations to the public might serve as a bit of a monkey wrench in the process, that concern is outweighed by the public's right to know. Taxpayers, after all, are footing the bill for public employees' salaries and benefits.
When state officials meet with leaders of public labor unions, they are determining how millions—or sometimes billions—of public dollars will be spent. And when pensions are involved, taxpayers can be handed a bill they will be paying for decades. Keeping negotiations secret from the public is an egregious violation of the notion of open government. As Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center wrote, 'Taxpayers should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make on our behalf.' It's all part of that whole 'ultimate rulers' thing that FDR pointed out… when it comes to open government, officials always should err on the side of letting the sunshine in."
As other states like Colorado and Idaho join the ranks of states providing for transparency in collective bargaining, hopefully Washington policymakers will recognize the importance of this issue and take the initiative to bring transparency to these important policy meetings. Success, however, will require overcoming the significant influence exerted by government unions desperate to keep their privileges enshrined in state law.