Secret state negotiations: Good for employee unions, bad for taxpayers

State employees rallied in Olympia today for pay raises as union leaders negotiate a new contract. How much of a raise are they asking for? You’re not allowed to know.

In fact, the state employees themselves don’t really know – not specifically, anyway. They’re rallying for a cause, but the specifics are withheld even from them.

Only their union leadership and negotiators in the governor’s office know, and they’re not talking. That’s by design. State employees’ current contracts spell out the rules of negotiation – coughing up details is not allowed. Each side can communicate broad information to their constituencies, but specifics are verboten.

If you’re feeling a little left out of this process, you’re in good company. Here’s a handy list of those who are excluded from knowing what’s happening in these negotiations:

  1. The taxpayers and voters who fund state government
  2. As mentioned, the state employees themselves don’t know what their leadership is bargaining for on their behalf
  3. State lawmakers, the people who appropriate every dime the state spends, are left in the dark just as much as regular citizens
  4. The press, who help hold public officials accountable for their actions

No, this isn’t a system that benefits very many. The exceptions are governors and governor candidates the unions like (the unions spend big on their behalf, like they have for Inslee), and the unions themselves, which always prefer secret negotiations instead of openness and public scrutiny.

It wasn’t always this way. Before 2002’s collective bargaining law, state employee salaries were set by the Legislature, just like every other state appropriation. Now, legislators are kept in the dark during negotiations. They can only vote to approve or reject the contract proposal the governor sends over – no amendments allowed.

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, writing prior to today’s rally, spelled out the problems with the state’s current approach:

“How are frontline workers supposed to know what exactly they are rallying for tomorrow if their leadership won’t tell them what they are demanding and what the Governor is offering? How are taxpayers supposed to know what the tradeoffs are? How are lawmakers supposed to fully exercise their constitutional power of the purse and make budget prioritization via the public legislative process if they continue to be cut out of this process?”

Worst of all is this idea that having the public in on the process, and evaluating how well the governor’s team is bargaining on their behalf, would foul everything up. It brings to mind the wonderful preamble to the state Public Records Act: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

The way the state conducts collective bargaining is a direct refutation of that principle. It ignores the people’s sovereignty in favor of backroom expediency.
-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.