(The Center Square) – The secrecy surrounding contract talks between the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Governor’s Office that produced a tentative agreement looks to remain a staple of future negotiations.
That’s because the tentative agreement – including a $1,000 incentive payment for getting a COVID-19 booster shot and a 4% raise for employees on July 1, 2023, followed by a 3% raise on July 1, 2024 – has a provision for maintaining secrecy in future compensation negotiations.
Page 176 of the 453-page tentative agreement, which the WFSE described as “the largest compensation package in our union’s history,” reads:
“1. Bargaining sessions will be closed to the press and the public unless agreed otherwise by the chief spokespersons.
“2. No proposals will be placed on the parties’ websites.
“3. The parties are not precluded from generally communicating with their respective constituencies about the status of negotiations while they are taking place.
“4. There will be no public disclosure or public discussion of the issues being negotiated until resolution or impasse is reached on all issues submitted for negotiations.”
The state Legislature used to decide compensation packages for state employees as part of public budget hearings.
Then-Gov. Gary Locke signed legislation, House Bill 1268, into law that gave state employee union executives the power to negotiate directly with the governor behind closed doors for salary and benefit increases. He signed it in 2002. The law went into full effect two years later.
Before that change, collective bargaining for state employees was limited to non-economic issues such as work conditions. Salary and benefit levels were determined through the normal budget process in the Legislature.
Lawmakers will have the opportunity to approve or reject the entire tentative agreement between the WFSE and Gov. Jay Inslee.
The Center Square reached out to the WFSE and the Governor’s Office to ask about the optics of taxpayers not having access to any details until after a provisional deal has been reached behind closed doors.
The union did not respond to The Center Square’s request for comment, but the Governor’s Office did.
“The bargaining process has been consistent across administrations and the Legislature has consistently had the final say on the matter,” Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said via email. “The details are provided – publicly and to legislators – and the same will be true soon for this cycle as well.”
He went on to say, “The legislators on the Joint Committee on Employment Relations meet with OFM [Office of Financial Management] throughout the year and prior to bargaining to provide feedback about the bargaining goals and process, and then the Legislature has to vote to enact many of the provisions.”
The JCER has a virtual work session scheduled for 1 p.m., on Oct. 13, that includes an update on the tentative agreement.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, a member of the JCER, was not convinced.
“It’s a good forum,” he said of the committee in an email to The Center Square, “but it does none of the negotiations and I would say that the briefings have more to do with the context of negotiations than actual information about details of negotiations.”
Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the free market Washington Policy Center think tank, is an advocate for more transparency in discussions around compensation for state government employees.
“Saying the Joint Committee on Employment Relations is legislative oversight is like saying the Green Bay Packer citizen owners hire the coach,” Mercier said.
Wilcox indicated he is not a fan of some of the provisions of the tentative agreement.
“In general, I would say that there is no question that inflation is causing labor negotiators to be very concerned about wage increases and because of near-record inflation, that is happening in the private sector among union and non-union employment,” he said.
“I don’t think the $1,000 bonus for vaccination is a good idea,” Wilcox concluded. “If the thousand dollars are a necessary part of the negotiation, fine, but to extend the bitterness of the COVID pandemic and the controversy of the governor’s vaccination mandate one more time by calling it a vaccination incentive seems very unwise, and even gratuitous, to me.”