Government unions oppose common-sense transparency

Government unions sometimes decry the influence of special interests in Washington politics, but the recent legislative session highlighted how government unions are not afraid to put their sizeable lobbying apparatus to work against the public interest.

After intense lobbying by the state teacher’s union, Senate Democrats reversed course and voted down their own bill which would have incorporated student test results into teacher evaluations. The legislation was necessary for Washington to continue receiving a waiver for the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the accompanying $44 million in federal education funds.

But nothing provides a better picture of the influence government unions exert over Olympia than the stories that do not make the headlines.

Introduced by Senator Bruce Dammeier (R-Puyallup), SB6250 would have required posting all collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between public agencies and government employee unions on a publicly-accessible website.

Government, from state agencies down to cities, school districts, and libraries, negotiates comprehensive contracts with unions which determine many critically important questions about government cost, services to taxpayers, and accountability for public employees. The 2,000-plus contracts are already public documents, but can be difficult to obtain. While many jurisdictions post their CBAs online, others may require a formal public records request.

For instance, while many municipalities post CBAs online, Spokane, the second-largest city in the state, does not. Furthermore, as the Freedom Foundation explained in our testimony on the bill, assembling the contracts in a single location would not only improve public access and free local jurisdictions from processing public records requests for the contracts, but would facilitate research and comparison. School boards, for instance, could easily use the database to get a sense of what contracts are like in other districts.

Testifying in support of the bill, Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers noted that the bill would be “very helpful” in enabling public stakeholders on all sides “to be able to compare and contrast similar contracts.”

Labor unions had a different view, and turned out no fewer than six lobbyists to oppose the bill. As originally written, SB6250 would have required government unions to email a copy of their current CBA to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).

While claiming to “believe in transparency,” union lobbyists testified before the Senate Commerce and Labor committee that the bill placed too much of a burden on unions. Joe Kendo of the Washington State Labor Council warned, “If there’s any responsibility on a local union to facilitate the electronic transfer of these documents that could be onerous,” though, when pressed by Sen. John Braun (R-Centralia), he admitted that sending an email every few years is not burdensome.

Still, lobbyist after lobbyist repeated that the “undue burden” should fall on public employers, not the unions. “We have no problem with the public viewing our collective bargaining agreements,” stated Adrienne Thompson of Professional and Technical Employees local 17. “The issue is around where the burden lies.”

As requested, the Senate committee amended the bill to require public agencies to submit the CBAs instead of the unions. The bill passed out of committee unanimously and passed out of the Senate on a strong, bipartisan vote.

But when the bill came before the Government Operations Committee in the House, union lobbyists again opposed it. Changing positions entirely, the unions argued against the bill on the grounds that it would “just [create] extra cost, extra hassle for PERC and for an untold number of local jurisdictions.”

PERC had already testified that maintaining the database would be relatively easy and inexpensive. Again, the only burden involves emailing PERC every few years when a new contract is negotiated.

Geoff Simpson of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters offered labor’s most candid argument, claiming that collecting the CBAs in a centralized location would make it easier to “cherry pick” information “to paint public employees in a bad light.”

For government unions, even simple good-government, transparency reforms are somehow an extension of the War on Workers.

After labor’s testimony, the chair of the committee, Rep. Sam Hunt (D-Olympia), cancelled the scheduled committee vote on SB6250, effectively killing the bill.

While government unions may claim to support transparency, their interests necessarily put them at odds with the public. Until the playing field is leveled between the interests of citizens and government unions in Washington, labor will continue to exert it influence to prevent even bipartisan bills increasing public access to public documents from becoming law.

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Maxford Nelsen

Maxford Nelsen

Maxford Nelsen is the Freedom Foundation’s Labor Policy Analyst. In this role, he conducts in-depth analysis and research of best practices in government and private labor policies and practices and communicates his findings to voters and policy makers in Washington State.
Maxford Nelsen

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