Open negotiations: What’s the big secret?

When Senate Republicans unveiled their budget earlier this spring (as this second special session drags on, that feels like ages ago), they proposed a new approach to state employee pay raises. Their budget gave employees a flat $2,000 raise instead of the percentage increases negotiated between the Governor’s Office and public employee unions.

The flat raises would have helped workers on the lower end of the pay scale much more than the negotiated percentage raises. Higher-paid workers would’ve seen a bigger gain from the percentage raises. State employee unions objected to the flat raise proposal.

Senate Republicans have given up on the flat raise plan and are willing to fund the percentage raises the unions want – but they’re tying those raises to some sensible reforms that deserve serious consideration.

13 states already have it
Maxford Nelsen of the Freedom Foundation has an excellent rundown of the proposed reforms. Chief among them is an idea Smarter Government Washington strongly backs: allowing the public to observe collective bargaining negotiations.

At a hearing on the Senate’s reform bill, union officials ran through their usual arguments against allowing the public to observe. Nelsen reports from the hearing:

Greg Devereux of the Washington Federation of State Employees argued against the transparency provision, stating, “We’re not aware of any serious negotiations at any level — international, national, state or, for that matter, in the state Legislature — that are open to the public.”

When Committee Chair Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond) pointed out that 13 states, including Oregon and Idaho, provide for complete or partial public access to collective bargaining, Devereux responded, “I just don’t think you’re going to have the serious discussions in public. It just doesn’t happen.”

Except, of course, that it does – and it works just fine in those states.

Cozy arrangement
Sen. Hill also pointed out an important reason the public should have the right to watch government employees negotiate with unions to spend the public’s money (as if that alone isn’t enough): the government negotiators are often in their roles and seated at the table after the unions spent big to elect the negotiators’ boss.

Not only that but the state effectively is the middle man for the money that later gets spent by the unions on elections. The state automatically deducts union dues from employees’ paychecks and hands that money over to the unions. Some of those funds are then spent on the unions’ political goals, which usually focus on ensuring the next governor is an ally of theirs.

Hill asked the right question: “So they literally can make contributions to help someone get someone elected, which is fine, but then the same person who may have received those contributions is then behind a closed door negotiating for wage increases…isn’t that one reason why we might want to make [negotiations] a little transparent?”

Well, that’s certainly a reason the taxpayers should want negotiations to be transparent. For the employee unions and their friends in the administration, keeping it all behind the curtain is more comfortable for them. That shouldn’t be a reason to kill these practical reforms the public wants.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.