February 18, 2009

Open Negotiations and the Common Good

Carroll Andrew Morse

Contrary to the Rhode Island Labor Relations Board's implication that contract negotiations opened to the public constitute "mere surface bargaining", there are other states that mandate some form of open negotiations -- sometimes all the way through the process. The Washington-state based Evergreen Freedom Foundation has compiled a list of different state laws regarding openness as of about a year and-a-half ago. The laws on the books fall into three basic categories…

  1. Straightforward requirements that contract negotiations be open to the public (for example Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Tennessee)
  2. Requirements that records or recordings be kept, and made available to the public (for example, Idaho)
  3. Requirements that proposals offered at different stages of negotiation from both sides be made available to the public (for example, Alaska, Iowa, Ohio)
A major source of dissonance between municipal councils, unions and the public can be traced to union resistance to negotiating in the open. Here's what I mean by that: it is often implicit in union positioning during collective bargaining that contract provisions can be...
  • Appropriate vehicles for regulatory action (for example, regarding minimum staffing), and
  • Full-blown appropriations decisions (for example, as is being debated in East Providence, where the underlying question is whether union contracts need to be brought into compliance with the government’s budgeting process, or the results of the budgeting process need to be brought into compliance with union contracts.)
But there are non-trivial problems with assigning full force of law to contracts, the primary being the difficulty in reconciling the principles of democratic self-governance with the idea of organizations not directly accountable to the public (and this refers to any kind of organization, not just unions) having a way to override the established budget process -- the process that some would claim is the fundamental basis of self-government. (Personally, I'm not quite so stark in my view of government, but I do agree that going outside of the budget process should not be easy, if it is allowed at all).

Even without settling this concern, however, union leaders and members who are serious about contracts being agreements that serve the broader public good and not just narrow organizational interests need to be willing to embrace the same level openness in contract creation that is required when making other public decisions and laws intended to advance the common good.

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"Contrary to the Rhode Island Labor Relations Board's implication that contract negotiations opened to the public constitute "mere surface bargaining", there are other states that mandate some form of open negotiations"

Great find, Andrew. Great post.

Posted by: Monique at February 18, 2009 4:57 PM

According to the article you sited twenty one states do not have public access to negoiations with RI being one of those. Maybe give some thought to expanding binding arbitration and making those records public.

Posted by: Phil at February 18, 2009 4:58 PM

Yeah Phil, that binding arbitration has worked sooooooo well in RI.
I just wish the corrupt Smith Hill Mob would raise the sales tax to 10% and the income tax to 20% and let us see the deluge.
But you know what? Your hero's don't have the balls to do it. They don't even want a cigarette tax hike on their already bloody hands.

Posted by: Mike at February 18, 2009 7:05 PM

Binding arbitration Phil? Come on, talk about removing any influence at all that the public might wield! And you think it would be okay because the public could read about the decision later. Great, we can do that now. Binding arbitration stinks, it's absolutely the wrong direction to move in.

Posted by: Frank at February 18, 2009 7:59 PM


Do you not have the right to vote, the right to run for office, the right to work for a candidate. How unwieldly would public participation be in the process of reaching accords between management and workers. Imagine the political grandstanding by political hacks with a rag tag assemby of tax cut groups in tow. I would'nt think that much could get accomplished but then that may be the idea.

Posted by: Phil at February 19, 2009 9:03 AM


The point is that the final decisions need to be made by the people who are accountable by all of the mechanisms you describe at the beginning of your previous comment, and not by an arbitrator who is not directly accountable to anybody.

And you're running straight into the contradiction I'm talking about in the main post. If you believe that a contract represents an ironclad promise that, by itself, carries the full force of an official appropriations decision, then it is especially important to support deliberating contracts in the same daylight that is used for the rest of council/legislative business.

Posted by: Andrew at February 19, 2009 9:31 AM


The big difference with having legislative sessions open to the public is that each legislator has a vote. The union negoiators do not have a vote. If their efforts to reach an agreement is not met with the same willingness from the elected(public elections) school committee nothing much will happen. If the public is unhappy about stalled talks they can replace the school committee by means of the ballot box.
Council members ( I am assuming that you mean town councils members who are also elected by the public) also have a vote and the hearings and votes are open to the public. Big difference is the elected members have a vote on financial matters and Union representatives obviously do not.
There is no contradiction.

Posted by: Phil at February 19, 2009 5:03 PM

Unless school committees and town/city councils can impose contract conditions without getting someone kind of consent from a union, then someone on the union side has a vote in the contract process.

Posted by: Andrew at February 19, 2009 7:28 PM
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