Running for the Tall Grass on Collective Bargaining

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They streamed in from Seattle*. Tacoma. Everett. Shelton. Onalaska. Kelso. Union, Fife, and Bremerton. Sported orange LiUNA and gray Democracy Rising T-shirts. Purple SEIU scarves. Brought signs. Flags. Letters from lawyers. Representatives from the Washington State Labor Caucus and the Twin Harbors Labor Council showed up.

At issue was a proposed resolution to improve transparency by opening collective bargaining negotiations to public view. A standing-room-only crowd packed the conference room at the county administration this afternoon to weigh in on the resolution. (Apparently “transparency” is the secret password to start unions running for – and staying in – the tall grass.)

Thirty people spoke during the public comment period, twenty-one against the resolution and nine in favor. Accusations of “union busting” and fear of “right to work” implementation flew as fast as Secretariat rounding the final turn at the Belmont.

Several audience members attacked the Freedom Foundation, erroneously claiming that the Foundation was behind the resolution.  Patrick Wadsworth of Montesano claimed the organization “evidently lobbied one of our commissioners” on opening union negotiations to public view. He wrapped up his comments with, “These people are not nice people. They’re funded by big profits.  The people who are propagating this are terrible people.”

Commissioner Cormier responded that he “was not lobbied” and brought the resolution forward “of his own free will.”

Saying he was “completely opposed to it” (the resolution), Gilbert Myers tried to take a jab at the commissioners by claiming that the resolution was brought forward at the last meeting and “no one knew about it.” Meyers commented, “You talk about transparency, but this was  brought forward like a thief in the night.” He accused the commissioners of trying to “sneak it through.”

Commissioner Vickie Raines responded that the item was posted well in advance: “Whether you agree with something or not, it was properly and legally posted.”

Two representatives from the Freedom Foundation, Scott Roberts and Matthew Hayward, spoke in support of the resolution. “Union members themselves need to know what’s going on, what’s happening with their livelihood,” said Hayward.

Roberts noted that the Freedom Foundation has championed open and transparent government for 25 years. “It makes government more efficient and run better,” he said. Citing a similar proposal recently adopted by Lincoln County, Roberts said:

“This is an opportunity. A transparent government is not an unfair labor practice.”

Roberts assured the commissioners of Freedom Foundation support, saying, “We’ll do whatever it takes to support you legally.”

Others claimed the resolution was “unnecessary,” and that the public has a chance to view a contract prior to a final vote. (Raise your hand if you’ve heard that before.) Also that commissioners “don’t need outsiders coming in to tell you how to run your county.” (The brain surgeon line forms to the left.)

An Us vs. Them mentality, only slightly less bellicose than the Battle of Belleau Wood, was on full display throughout the public comment period.

Noting that union bargaining members are elected, some said “you don’t build trust when outside members are involved.” The claim was that open negotiations would result in a longer, more expensive process, labor unrest, legal challenges, and the sky would fall.

Other commenters claimed that adopting the resolution would be “bad policy, unenforceable, and subject to legal challenge.” One man asserted that open negotiations constituted an “attack on labor. This is “right-to-work for less. It’s (contract negotiations) counter-productive to be made public.”

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Run for your lives!

Another attendee pointed out that over the last ten years, county union employees have received pay raises far and above those received by active duty military (between 32% and 50+%). “If it doesn’t work, you can always switch it back,” he said. “Taxpayers deserve the right to hear what’s going on behind closed doors. Sunlight is the best way to bring light to this situation.”

Others claimed that “anyone who votes for this, pure and simple, is a union buster.” However, one woman pointed out that “not every job is unionized. Not every person gets represented. Non-union people deserve to be heard, too.”

Another man opined, “There’s other ways of being transparent other than inviting the public into union negotiations.” He did not elaborate.

(Note: The resolution wasn’t about “inviting the public into union negotiations.” It was about allowing the public to observe the process, rather than holding same behind closed doors. The “inviting the public into negotiations” misnomer was repeated numerous times throughout the hour-plus long public comment period.)

And so on.

As noted previously, when Commissioner Cormier brought the resolution forward for a vote by the entire board, it failed for lack of a second. The heavily union crowd broke into applause and cheers. And then filed out. A five minute recess was called.

Following the recess, Commissioner Raines publicly thanked people for coming. She said she “respects the Freedom Foundation” but “doesn’t necessarily agree with them,” and that Grays Harbor does things different from Lincoln County. She said that she respects her professional relationship with Commissioner Cormier and finds him “honest and thoughtful. But we have different opinions and philosophies at times. This is one of those times. I hope we can move past this, at least at this juncture.” She said that county staff are “a priority” and she wants to “move forward” and continue relationship-building.

Noting that he came from an industry that’s not unionized, Commissioner Randy Ross said his decision was based on the need for more input on the subject. He said he “believes things should be open and transparent, but some things don’t need to be negotiated in public.” Ross clarified that he “won’t close out” the idea of not bringing the issue back at some point in the future.

At the Media Q and A Session following the business meeting, Ross said, “It sounds like a wonderful idea, but it’s not as clear-cut as you think it is.” He also expressed concerns about subjecting voters to the expense of a potential legal challenge on the issue. Also that he “hasn’t been convinced yet” that “there’s a big need to do this.”

A former union member and shop steward, Commissioner Cormier reiterated his statements from last week. He emphasized that the issue isn’t about the Freedom Foundation, or Republicans versus Democrat, or labor versus management, but transparency. Noting that he ran on transparency, Cormier said:

For me, this is just about transparency and something I’d like to see become public…. I was in the union, a union steward, and I didn’t get to see what was done behind closed doors. … We’re negotiating public money, and that’s why it should be open to the public.”

Wow. What a concept.

 

*Forget tourism. Apparently the best way to get Seattle-ites to visit Grays Harbor is to mention the other “T-word.” What a concept again.

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