Collective bargaining shouldn’t be a secret

May 27, 2015

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

What would you say if you were presented with an agreement over which you had no say, was negotiated in secret and cost you millions — and the only thing you could do was turn thumbs-up or thumbs-down?

Most likely what you would say would be unprintable. Unfortunately, we in the Legislature are limited to yea or nay.

For the last 10 years, this has been the way the state deals with its public-employee unions, and it’s about time we brought this process into the sunlight. In the Senate we have introduced a bill that would for the first time open these negotiating sessions to public view. If we’re going to keep negotiating this way – if we’re even going to consider agreements negotiated at the bargaining table – public scrutiny is something we should invite, not shun.

We ought to remember how this odd situation came about. Some states have been bargaining this way for more than 50 years. Washington recognized public-employee unions in 1967, but lawmakers here were hesitant to give up their decision-making power. Lawmakers tended to balance demands for higher pay against all the state’s other needs, and often they were inclined to hold the line.

This didn’t sit well with the unions. It took years of pressure and a legislative session when the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion were under the control of the other team, but in 2002 lawmakers finally voted to give up their authority. Today the governor’s office negotiates with the unions every two years under a veil of secrecy. Lawmakers are expected to ratify whatever emerges as a line-item in the budget. When the Senate proposed an alternative this year, the governor’s office and the unions claimed we didn’t have the authority – they said they must agree to everything.

Their argument remains untested, but clearly we have given the state’s public-employee unions a special status not enjoyed by any of the other interests dependent on state spending. It’s easy to draw the political connections. Public employee unions generally play on the other side of the street. We have a governor, often elected with millions in contributions from public employee unions, overseeing the negotiations. As long as these agreements are negotiated in the dark it will always appear as if everyone is sitting on the same side of the table.

Take what happened this time around. The law allows the governor’s office to declare a collective bargaining agreement “financially infeasible” – a way to back out of an agreement if the bottom suddenly drops out of the budget, as happened in 2008. But there’s no definition. So last year the governor’s Office of Financial Management certified that a negotiated 5 percent pay raise is feasible, while it proposed cutting women’s health programs, letting inmates out early, and reducing state compensation for property-poor school districts. We can also say quite reasonably these labor agreements were a major factor in the explosion of state spending just before the last recession.

There are some who argue the old way was better. Point well taken, but our proposal, Senate Bill 6126, stakes out a more moderate position. It leaves the process in place but makes some reasonable adjustments. A definition of financial infeasibility, among other things — and open negotiations. The unions and the governor’s office argue for secrecy. But this is no radical idea. A dozen states so far have opened their contract talks to public view. This proposal would improve transparency, public understanding and predictability of the process. If we’re going to give public-employee unions a special status under the law, it is only right we ask something in return – a chance for the public to see we really are driving a hard bargain.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, is chair of the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Development Committee.