Making Collective Bargaining Negotiations Public

By Donna Green

Published by the Union Leader on Mar 15, 2017

Salaries and benefits are the biggest expenses in public education. They are also the biggest drivers for the continually increasing costs of running our schools with fewer and fewer students.

In my school district, salaries and assorted benefits will cost us $52 million next year. That’s 73% of our 17/18 budget. Despite this enormous expenditure by the public, there is no transparency whatsoever in how these salaries and generous benefits are arrived at with our teacher and support staff unions.

Our negotiations begin with the school board assigning a few board members to the negotiating team. They confer amongst themselves and confer with the board as a whole. The teachers’ union also assembles a few teachers. Presumably they confer amongst themselves and so on. So far, so good.

Both parties hire their own lawyer. In the presence of the negotiating teams of their respective sides, the lawyers conduct the negotiations – entirely behind closed doors. Everyone involved is instructed to hold the entire process in complete confidence.

With the assurance of never being contradicted, both parties will claim to their broader constituents that they drove a hard bargain. Did they? Who is to know? We, the taxpayer, are left with increasingly unsustainable bills for benefits we ourselves do not enjoy in our private sector jobs. It leaves you wondering just how hard your elected representatives actually did work in your interests. Similarly, union members are left mystified as to why and how their initial positions got changed (if they did).

There is no reason we should be wondering. There is no reason at all that these negotiations should be done in secret. Every taxpayer and every union member alike should have a full understanding of just how hard their representatives and their hired guns have actually worked to drive a fair deal for all parties.

This is hardly a far-fetched idea. A 2015 policy paper published by the Commonwealth Foundation, “Opening the Curtain on Government Unions,” listed eight states that required collective bargaining negotiations to be conducted in public session:

  • Colorado (school districts only)
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Minnesota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Montana

One rural county in Washington state last year, Lincoln County, insisted on opening its negotiations to the public. They were sued by their public union for bargaining in bad faith but the court upheld the county’s right to demand transparency.

In the Commonwealth Foundation paper, Senior Fellow Priya Abraham argued:

Whenever major public policy or public money decisions are concerned, allowing public and press access to proceedings is crucial to transparent government. Moreover, transparency in government union collective bargaining is becoming increasingly necessary as public sector compensation outstrips that in the private sector, with the result being heavier tax burdens for working people.

New Hampshire’s Right to Know law (RSA 91-A) exempts collective bargaining negotiations from its open meeting requirements. This should be changed by legislators, but until then it is important to understand the difference between a permissible exemption and an absolute requirement. New Hampshire’s law says public bodies may conduction their collective bargaining in private, but it does not require them to do so. School districts and other public bodies should do the right thing by taxpayers and union members in insisting on negotiations in public when both parties are present.

To be clear, this is not an attack on unions. The only parties threatened by sunshine are those who aren’t standing up for the interests of their constituents.
Donna Green is president of the School District Governance Association of New Hampshire. The SDGA’s mission is to educate and empower elected school district officials to assert their lawful authority and be responsive to their electorate. SDGANH.org

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