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Spokane employees picket in dispute over public negotiations

City and county employees say recent measures mandating union bargaining happens in public are illegal and unethical.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane city and county employees picketed Friday afternoon outside the Spokane County Courthouse, the latest development in a long-running dispute that centers around whether union negotiations should be held in public.

Historically, the meetings between local governments and their workers' unions are private, and union members want to keep it that way.

"The process works just fine. It's kind of an if ain't broke don't fix it sort of a thing," said Gordon Smith, staff representative for Washington State Council of County and City Employees

But in recent years, several local politicians have argued the process doesn't work, that it's too secretive. Spokane County commissioners passed a resolution requiring these meetings be public, and Spokane city voters overwhelmingly supported a charter amendment to the same effect.

"[Voters supported it] soundly and firmly, and that is the direction that they want to go," said Spokane City Council Member Michael Cathcart, who was one of the primary sponsors of the ballot measure. "No more back room deals. No more closed off discussions. The public must be allowed to observe."

"Those negotiations are determining how you are going to spend taxpayer dollars," said Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns.

"The biggest expenditures are wages and salaries," said Cathcart. "We want to make sure that the public has all the information to know how their elected officials are acting on their behalf."

Union workers say it's unnecessary because the final contracts are made public before they're formally approved.

"It's not that we're doing anything secret or untoward or making some sort of under-the-table deals," said James Tieken with AFSCME Local 270. "Under-the-table deals don't work when the final [contract] goes out there in front of the public anyways for them to review."

Kerns says that's not enough.

"You're hiding 95... 99 percent of the negotiations and the actual process from the public and the taxpayers, and I think that's wrong," Kerns said.

Unions say their biggest concern is that opening up these meetings to the public would also open them up to bad faith arguments and excessive politicization.

"If there weren't organizations and individuals with anti-labor agendas out there, it would be no big deal," Smith said. "People with agendas could be disrupters. Recordings can be cut and pasted and misrepresented."

"I think it allows for a whole lot of posturing... instead of really getting down to the work of getting the bargaining done," Tieken said.

Open-meeting proponents contest the transparency would actually decrease the likelihood of misinformation.

"If these are open meetings for the public to see and to understand, then no, I think the risk of manipulated content is probably the lowest it could possibly be," Cathcart said.

"It just drives home the fact that members of the public need to be there as well to make sure that they can see for themselves what actually happened in that room," Kerns said.

Cathcart also points to the recently-signed Spokane Police Guild contract, which required years of private negotiations. He argues had that bargaining been public, it would have resolved faster.

Resolving this issue may be up to the courts and the state labor board. Several related lawsuits are in the works; unions contest the open-meeting laws are in violation of state labor laws.

A ruling may be made later this year, but in the meantime the debate is being waged publicly.

"Our employees deserve a contract sooner than that," Smith said. "We're hoping that through our media campaign and actions like this... the commissioners will reconsider."

If the parties can't come to an agreement on the basic logistics of how bargaining will take place, no discussion about a new contract can be had. For both sides that means instability; for workers it means they won't see a raise anytime soon.

Union representative say they do not want to resort to striking, but it's not off the table. Government leaders say they do not expect it will come to that.


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