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Why Public Union Contracts Should Be Negotiated In Public April 3, 2009

Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.

Union negotiators represent a very vocal constituency with very strong interests in maximizing the union’s wins in contract negotiations.  Union workers enjoy a homefield advantage when it comes time to trot out human interest stories for the press and pundits to exploit.  Public boards and administrators, in contrast, represent the relatively poorly organized and unattentive constituency of “taxpayers.”

The prevailing custom is for public union negotiations to proceed in secret.  Fred at School Board Transparency explains how this “gives an immense and entirely unnecessary bargaining advantage to the union.”

The law allows (but does not require) school boards to conceal both how the union is proposing that they spend public money and how the board itself proposes to spend that money. Agreeing not to tell the public anything about this permits a union to prolong negotiations for as long as it wishes and then launch a PR blitz combining tributes to the dedication of teachers with threats of a strike. Unions can open negotiations with outrageous demands — not in the least “cognizant” of anything other than maxing out pay raises — stick with those demands for many months (or else lower them in tiny increments) and then complain that boards “aren’t negotiating.” Transparency is a dagger to the heart of this strategy.

He also offers a striking analogue:

Suppose that a school board in the newspaper’s area announces that it plans to put artificial turf on its athletic fields. The district negotiates with a sole-source contractor about materials and costs and promises to announce the results on the night of a board vote on the contract. (Meanwhile spokespeople for both the board and the contractor assure reporters that talks are “going well.”) It’s hard to believe that any self-respecting editor would shrug and say, “Well, I guess that’s how things are done.” Why apply a different standard to decisions that affect every family in a district, decide in advance the feasibility of plans to improve educational quality and cost many, many times more than laying down Astroturf?



1. Fred D. Baldwin - April 6, 2009

Thanks for the post. For a short list of how public sector bargaining, especially for schools, differs from private sector bargaining, see a Sunshine Review note at http://sunshinereview.org/index.php/Collective_bargaining%2Cprivate-public_sector_differences. Here are three important differences:
— A manufacturer can close a plant, but a school board can’t move classes to a nearby district with lower labor costs, much less to Mexico or Taiwan.
— School directors are elected officials, and teachers naturally vote for candidates they expect to support their goals. During negotiations, union agendas may have advocates on both sides of the table.
— If Coke workers strike, customers can switch to Pepsi. If transit workers strike, many riders can car pool. When schools are closed on short notice, parents can’t easily find substitute suppliers.
In general, economic issues drive private-sector bargaining. Public-sector bargaining is inherently political. Union demands to school boards should be understood as a form of lobbying, not as bargaining between two parties about how to share expected sales revenue. Lobbying is a free-speech right meriting legal protection. But I think the public is entitled to know what lobbyists are asking from public officials. And I’m absolutely convinced that public officials should disclose how they propose to respond to what lobbyists are asking for — and not just after deals have been struck.

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