Gregoire and unions: bargaining takes on political stakes

The governor is trying to negotiate agreements with state employee groups that could have a big impact on what Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna can do as her successor.
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Washington State Governor, Christine Gregoire

The governor is trying to negotiate agreements with state employee groups that could have a big impact on what Jay Inslee or Rob McKenna can do as her successor.

The Olympian on Tuesday provided an update on the status of the state's 2013-15 union negotiations that outgoing Gov. Christine Gregoire is finalizing for the next governor:

“Time may be running out on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s labor negotiators if they hope to secure a contract with more than two-dozen unions on pay and health benefits by Oct. 1. The Washington Federation of State Employees goes back to the table with Gregoire’s labor team today and Thursday at the Thurston County Fairgrounds near Lacey, and a top union leader says they aren’t sure they’ll get a deal. In one scenario, state workers could end up working without a contract for a full year," Brad Shannon says in the paper. 

Both candidates for governor say they support collective bargaining rights, but Democrat Jay Inslee is clearly warmer to public employees and has their endorsement. Republican Rob McKenna has said he doesn’t want Gregoire to lock in agreements that get in the way of full funding of K-12 school programs without raising taxes.

The governor’s race may be affecting the contract talks, although Greg Devereux, head of the largest state union, said the talks could affect the outcome for governor. He explained that if the governor drives too hard a bargain by seeking more wage freezes after four years of no cost-of-living pay adjustments, she may inadvertently affect the election outcome by discouraging Democrat-friendly union workers from even voting — in effect helping McKenna.

"If people really feel totally undervalued, they probably won’t be very excited about voting," Devereux said.

This not-too-subtle union threat on the electoral chances of a candidate is just another reason to restore the Legislature's authority over state employee compensation decisions.

As noted by this 2004 press release from Gov. Gary Locke announcing the first union contracts agreed to under the 2002 law, prior to its passage the Legislature determined state employee compensation via the budget process:

“This year’s contract negotiations mark the first time in state history that unions have been able to bargain with the state for wages and benefits. The new personnel reform law passed by the Legislature in 2002 expanded the state’s collective bargaining activities to include wages and benefits. In the past, the Legislature unilaterally set those terms,” the press release says.

As we noted in the 4th Edition of the Washington Policy Center's Policy Guide for Washington State, this process should ultimately be changed so that lawmakers have more say in these appropriation decisions:

State collective bargaining law prevents the legislature, and the public, from knowing the process that determines employment contract costs. The current system undermines transparency and public accountability for the tax dollars being spent through the state payroll.

Under the 2002 Civil Service Reform Act, the Legislature can only vote yes or no, with no amendments or other changes, to a contract negotiated secretly by the governor and union officials. As a result, state unions no longer have their priorities weighed equally with other special interest groups during the normal legislative budget process. Instead, union executives now negotiate directly with the governor, while lawmakers only have the opportunity to say yes or no to the entire contract. Lawmakers cannot make any changes.

To put the Legislature back in charge of the budget so spending can be prioritized to serve the public interest, the 2002 collective bargaining law should be repealed and replaced with something similar to the policy Indiana adopted in 2005. When Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels took office in 2005, he issued an executive order that, in effect, ended secret state negotiations with unions.

Unions exist to fight for their members, not to advocate for policy that is in the best interest of taxpayers. This why it is incumbent on the Legislature to have the authority to weigh all spending requests equally in the context of the priorities of all taxpayers and citizens and not be cut out of budget decisions totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Legislature should reassert its authority over state employment policy to ensure greater public accountability and transparency. This would help advance improvements that reduce costs while rewarding the excellent work of state employees.

SB 5349 was introduced in 2011 to implement this type of policy change, but it was not acted on. From the bill's intent section:

The legislature finds that its authority over a significant portion of the state budget has eroded since state employees began collectively bargaining with the executive branch over wages and benefits. The legislature recognizes that it is the responsibility of a union to advocate for the best interest of its membership, while it is the responsibility of the legislature to determine the best interest of the state. State employees no longer have to make their case to the legislature for additional funding for compensation packages and compete for the limited funding with other priorities. The flexibility of the legislature has been limited, as the legislature has no authority to make changes to negotiated agreements between state employees and the executive branch. In tight budget times it is clear that the legislature needs more flexibility to truly prioritize spending, and must take back its authority over state employee compensation choices. Therefore, the legislature intends to repeal the ability of state employees and other nontraditional groups to collectively bargain with the executive branch over compensation.

An alternative reform that would have subjected public employee collective bargaining sessions to the open public meetings act (HB 2526) also was not acted on by lawmakers.



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