A liberal columnist's case for open collective bargaining

May 8, 2019

Liberal Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal has grudgingly endorsed a new ballot initiative that would open up collective bargaining negotiations between the City of Spokane and the union that represents the city’s workers.

Okay, that might be an exaggeration.  Vestal didn’t actually endorse the proposed city charter amendment that would inject transparency into the negotiating process, but he did strongly champion the principles of open government and chastise government unions that their hollow argument against transparency isn’t very convincing.  

Vestal summarily tossed out the “nobody wants to see what a hot dog is made of” argument that union leaders use when arguing against allowing removing the shroud of secrecy from collective bargaining negotiations.  As Vestal pluckily responds, “Nobody, I guess, except the people who have to pay for and eat the thing.”

In his S-R column, Vestal, who makes no secret of his progressive tilt and his support of labor unions (nor of his dislike and disdain of all things not progressive), says that the union demand for secrecy in public employee collective bargaining negotiations is reason enough to oppose such secrecy.  In other words, if government unions have nothing to hide, they should have no problem with opening negotiations to the public.  The very fact they are so adamantly opposed to such openness is a red flag that indicates the doors need to be flung wide open.

Vestal emphasizes that Washington’s open government system “prizes public participation and access” and makes an eloquent argument in favor of truly open government: 

“Public officials all pay it lip service, but no one likes the public or the news media prying into their business when the question becomes concrete. Mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, city council members, county commissioners – no one enjoys the idea that their work in progress, their unfinished thoughts, negotiating positions, amendments and discards, their emails and text messages might be available for public inspection.

No one thinks that the time and effort spent on answering requests for public requests for records is worthwhile.

No one who has the light trained on them likes the light.

It’s understandable. Such openness is not normal. It’s not the way any of us operate in any other arena. We live in a world where organizations prepare, manage, massage, tweak, finalize, edit, redraft, retweak public communications before they ever see the light of day. In that context, it feels profoundly uncomfortable and even unnatural to be asked to adhere to laws that fly directly in the face of that practice.

And yet that is what Washington law calls for. That is what it means for the people to own the government. That is what true accountability requires: the uncomfortable, inconvenient, time-consuming, perhaps even embarrassing participation in a process that is overseen by the people.”

It isn’t very often WPC agrees with Shawn Vestal but in this case, we couldn’t have said it any better.