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Protesters Decry Wash. State's Closed-Door Labor Negotiations

Austin Jenkins
Tim Welch of the Washington Federation of State Employees tries to hand out cups of tea to protesters from the Evergreen Foundation.

As the state of Washington resumed bargaining sessions with its unionized employees Wednesday, protesters were present to criticize the secret nature of the meetings.

Chanting, "Secret meetings have got to go,” protesters waved signs that read “transparency now.” These protesters from the conservative Evergreen Foundation were greeted by staff and members of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The federation’s Tim Welch tried to hand out cups of tea to the dozen or so activists.

“'Cause we know how much you guys love tea and tea parties,” Welch said.

The protesters declined the hospitality, but asked to attend the bargaining session.

“Right now it’s like watching paint dry. There is no bargaining going on right now,” Welch told them.

Even if there was something to see, these labor negotiations are closed-door affairs, and it’s been this way for more than a decade.

In 2002, Washington’s governor was given the authority to negotiate master agreements with state employee labor unions. The agreements cover everything from workplace conditions to health care, to pay.

“It is not an understatement to say you’re talking about potentially hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Jason Mercier with the right-of-center Washington Policy Center.

Mercier says these negotiations have major implications for the state budget, especially in light of a Supreme Court ruling that says the Legislature is underfunding public schools. This year, state employees are pushing hard for a cost-of-living increase — something they haven’t received since 2008.

Welch won’t say how much of an increase his union is asking for, and he argues it would be counterproductive to open the doors to the negotiations. 

“You know, the problem is that proposals change. You’re trying to get a middle, and each side will come in — it’s bargaining. You know what bargaining is,” Welch said.

Welch notes the Washington Legislature will have the ultimate say with an up-or-down vote on the final contracts.

Oregon does require labor negotiations to be open, but there’s an exemption in the law that allows both sides to mutually agree to negotiate privately in executive session.

As for the Washington negotiations, they could wrap up this September. Then the governor’s budget office will review the contracts for economic feasibility. The final agreements will go to the Legislature in January.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.