Transparency in public employee collective bargaining: How Washington compares to other states

By ERIN SHANNON  | 
Dec 10, 2018
POLICY BRIEF

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Key Findings

  1. Washington state has one of the strongest open government laws in the country.  The state’s Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act (OPMA) require that both laws be “liberally construed” to promote open government and accountability to the public.
  2. Despite this strong mandate for government transparency, government employee contracts in Washington are usually negotiated in secret.  There is no option for the public to know what transpires in such negotiations until well after those negotiations have been concluded and agreements have been signed.   
  3. These secret negotiations between government unions and public officials often involve billions of dollars in public money. Taxpayers provide the money for these agreements, they should not be negotiated in secret. The public should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make on taxpayers’ behalf.
  4. Secrecy is not the rule in every state. Of the 47 states that allow government workers to collectively bargain, 22 states allow some level of public access to various components of those negotiations, including Washington’s neighbors to the south and east, Oregon and Idaho.
  5. Four local governments in Washington have recently ended secrecy and embraced government employee contract transparency. 
  6. Opening public employee collective bargaining is clearly working in many states, and even in some Washington local governments, creating more open, honest, and accountable government.  There is no reason it should not also work in all of Washington to create the same public benefit.

Introduction

Washington state has one of the strongest open government laws in the country.  The state’s Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act (OPMA) require that both laws be “liberally construed” to promote open government and accountability to the public. 

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) says: 

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. 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 people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Despite this strong mandate for government transparency, government employee contracts in Washington are usually negotiated in secret.   There is no option for the public to know what transpires in such negotiations until well after those negotiations have been concluded and agreements have been signed.   

These secret negotiations between government unions and public officials often involve billions of dollars in public money.

Since taxpayers are ultimately responsible for funding these contract agreements, they should be allowed to monitor the negotiation process so they may hold the government officials who represent them accountable for their actions.  

It is not just taxpayers who are deprived of their right to know how they are being represented. Rank and file public employees on whose behalf their union negotiates are also left in the dark as a result of our state’s lack of transparency in the collective bargaining process.

Public employees are taxpayers as well, and they may be concerned about the financial obligations public officials are committing the public to paying, especially when such obligations are agreed to in secret.

Only the government officials and union executives who negotiated the deal have the privilege of knowing the details, such as what offers were made, and rejected, in collective bargaining negotiations.  Taxpayers, union members, lawmakers, and the media only find out after the agreement has been reached.  These stakeholders are left wondering whether, and how well, their interests were represented.

Secrecy is not the rule in every state.  Washington’s neighbors to the south and east, Oregon and Idaho, both require collective bargaining negotiations be open to the public. This Policy Brief provides a review of how transparent the collective bargaining process is in other states compared to Washington.  

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