Freedomnomics

Article published Thursday, September 11, 2008, at Investor's Business Daily.

Unions Bargain At Table With Governor Whose Re-election They're Helping Fund

By Sonya D. Jones and John R. Lott, Jr.

Democrats are expected to make strong gains in state legislatures this fall, but what do these stronger Democratic majorities mean? A look at Washington State may show what is in store for the rest of the country.

Public employee unions are handing over vast amounts of money to the incumbent governor's re-election campaign, while the governor is simultaneously sitting at the bargaining table negotiating contracts with these very unions.

If it seems inappropriate for the governor, Christine Gregoire, who is locked in a very tight re-election, to benefit personally from the parties that her office is negotiating with, that's just your conscience, not the law.

As of Aug. 28, a number of unions the Washington Federation of State Employees, AFSCME, National Education Association and Washington Education Association, Service Employees International Union, and the AFL-CIO had already contributed more than $1.5 million to the Evergreen Progress PAC.

The current negotiations are covering everything from general government employees, home health care workers, home child care workers, and nurses in state institutions to staff in the public universities. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the PAC's ads have unleashed "a drubbing" of her Republican gubernatorial opponent, Dino Rossi.

Amazingly, neither union members nor the taxpaying public knows the details of these negotiations until after the legislature approves the budget funding the resulting contracts. Even the members of the legislature do not know the details of the contract negotiations before they vote.

That wasn't the way it was supposed to be. A joint committee from the state House and Senate was originally supposed to consult the governor during the negotiations, but that committee never met. The Democratic-controlled legislature has simply chosen to ignore the costs of the collective bargaining agreements that burdened taxpayers with more than one-half billion dollars in the last budget. By law, the contracts themselves are not public records until after the legislature approves the budget.

Even worse, while the negotiations are going on immediately before this fall's election, the budget votes won't occur until next year. Because of term limits, this November is Gov. Gregoire's last election for governor, and she will never have to face the voters again after the contracts eventually become public.

Washington state collective bargaining laws invite more abuse than some other states because they cover wages as well as hours and benefits.

If nothing questionable is going on, the legislature could easily solve this "appearances" problem by either disallowing campaign contributions from unions while they are sitting at the bargaining table, or, even better, require that collective bargaining sessions be open to the public. Yet, there appears to be little public pressure to do either.

Currently, 39 states lack any transparency for their public-sector negotiations. Michigan law goes so far as to explicitly prohibit any documents related to the negotiations from being disclosed. Other states don't even let union members have access to the documents related to the negotiations on their behalf.

Twenty-three of those 39 states also have compulsory unionization for public employees, giving the unions access to tens of thousands of paychecks per state. Unions not only get to help re-elect the politicians who give them favorable contracts, they can impose dues on people who don't want to be union members to accomplish this.

It is not even clear how happy public-sector employees are with their unions. When government workers have a choice whether to join a union, union membership rates are only about a third the rate that they are in agency-shop states with mandatory membership.

Unfortunately, just as Barack Obama's and congressional Democrats' promises to end the secret ballot for union elections next year are largely being ignored, state labor issues are also going undiscussed.

Yet, some minor changes in current state laws could create problems similar to those in Washington state. The big money for unions is in wage negotiations. Covering wages under secret collective bargaining would not only guarantee more abuses, it would ensure that unions care even more over what politicians get elected to office.

November's elections may mean that voters will soon wake up to even much higher taxes than they had expected.

*Jones is director of the Labor Policy Center at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

*John Lott is the author of the book, Freedomnomics and and is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.

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