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Collective bargaining in government should never be secret

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

The citizens of the city of Spokane have reason to be upset.

After nearly 80% of voters approved a city charter change demanding collective bargaining talks be open and transparent, it seems few in charge want to follow the law that citizens overwhelmingly demanded.

Collective bargaining talks are the negotiations government unions have with government officials over salaries, benefits and working conditions. Because they involve millions of dollars of taxpayer money, they should be open and transparent. This doesn’t mean the public participates in the negotiations, but the public should be allowed to observe the process.

This kind of process is not only good for taxpayers, but also for union members who are able to see how their union leadership is representing them at the bargaining table.

"The people have a right to know how public spending decisions are made on their behalf. Ending collective bargaining secrecy and opening government union contract negotiations to the public, as other states and cities have done, is a practical and ethical way to achieve that standard."

The state of Idaho knows this. The city of Coeur d’Alene knows this. Coeur d’Alene has negotiated in public, and the union leadership has claimed that “no one shows up and it’s not a problem.” In fact, Idaho law prevents cities and unions from negotiation any contracts in secret. Democrats and Republicans passed the law unanimously and it was signed into law by former Governor Butch Otter in 2015.

Washington state, however, is a different story. While numerous attempts have been made to bring sunshine to the secretive process, government unions have resisted every step of the way.

The latest saga comes from Spokane, where unions have been suing the citizens since a 2019 charter change passed. The city of Spokane, for its part, hasn’t been pushing the issue.

When the union lawsuit went before a district court judge, the city gave a weak defense, and the district court judge didn’t seem interested in knowing about the process or the need for transparency.

Fast forward to this week’s Supreme Court appeal, and again lawyers for the city of Spokane gave a weak defense, essentially claiming there was no need for a lawsuit because the city wasn’t following the law to begin with.

This blatant disregard for the will of the voters shakes the faith citizens have in government and government leaders. A Spokane City Councilmember told me he watched this week’s arguments with “dismay.”

It is likely the Washington Supreme Court will rule in favor of the unions and overturn the Spokane requirement for transparent government-union talks. When it does, the citizens of Spokane can lay much of the blame at the feet of city leaders.

Meantime, various forms of open, transparent negotiations continue in more than half the states – including Idaho - and taxpayers and union members are all the better for it.

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