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Paul Guppy
Published: 09 March 2011

The weeks of angry protest and heated controversy in Wisconsin have sparked a national debate over the role of public sector unions and whether mandatory collective bargaining contributes to massive increases in spending, rising taxes and chronic budget deficits. With our state facing its own $4.5 billion deficit, the question naturally arises, could Wisconsin-style collective bargaining protests happen here? It's entirely possible – because Washington already has the same kind of collective bargaining system in place.

In 2002, majority Democrats in Olympia passed a sweeping collective bargaining bill and sent it to Governor Locke for his signature. It was treated like a routine civil service law, but it actually represented a radical shift of power from the legislature to the governor's office. With the stroke of a pen lawmakers lost control of over $2 billion in wages per year, and a further $608 million annually in healthcare, step increases, cost-of-living raises and other employee benefit costs. In the four years after collective bargaining went into effect, state spending increased 33%.

In Olympia, state operating costs are now decided in a series of closed-door meetings between union executives and governor appointees. The negotiations are secret. The public is not allowed to know the starting and ending positions of each side, what is discussed, the amount of public money involved, or what concessions each side makes.

No legislative oversight or public comments are permitted. The meetings are not covered by TVW, and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Lawmakers cannot attend negotiating sessions, offer proposals or participate in the discussions. They may only vote up or down, with no amendments, on the final binding agreement.

A dramatic example of how collective bargaining restricts lawmakers' control over the budget occurred last November when, to help solve the budget deficit, Governor Gregoire asked state employees to contribute 26% of the cost of their health coverage, a level typical in the private sector. Union executives refused, even though the governor had been elected with strong union support.

Instead the union agreed to a small increase of just 3% in how much state workers contribute. Taxpayers pay about $850 per month for each employee's health coverage, while state workers pay a fraction of that. The union's rejection of the governor's request will mean bigger cuts in public services.

In addition to collective bargaining, public sector unions are heavily involved in politics. In 2010 public unions spent $2.7 million dollars to help elect or defeat candidates for state legislative office. Major campaign contributors included Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), labor organizations that also conduct collective bargaining negotiations. Nationally, unions gave $171 million to political candidates in 2010. "We're spending big – and we're damn happy it's big," said AFSCME's national president Gerald McEntee during last fall's campaign.

In 2010 one political consulting firm, Moxie Media, used union funds to create up to 40 political action committees to obscure the source of contributions it made to state legislative candidates. The firm's executives were accused of using contributions from public-sector unions and other sources to create a fake Republican campaign against a Democrat incumbent. The political strategy led to a campaign finance investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission and the state Attorney General.

Unions represent the interests of their members, but the outcome of elections determines who represents the public interest at the negotiating table. By supporting or opposing candidates for public office, unions influence who sits on both sides of the table. This conflict of interest was best summarized by an AFSCME district president; "We have the ability, in a sense, to elect our own boss."

Collective bargaining severely hampers the legislature's ability to carry out its normal constitutional functions. In addition, experience indicates collective bargaining contributes to higher labor costs to the state, especially health care costs, without necessarily improving the quality of services delivered to the public. As some critics put it, under collective bargaining the governor bargains and the unions collect.

Ending Washington's ten-year experiment with mandatory collective bargaining would serve the public interest because it would return control of state operating costs to the legislature, restore constitutional balance with the executive, and reduce the political influence of union campaign spending on public policy.

Paul Guppy is Vice President for Research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org.

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