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Bring union negotiations out of back rooms

September 24, 2012

During Walpole Town Hall’s override campaign this spring, officials often talked about making the $3 million property tax hike “sustainable.”

A tax increase can not be sustainable unless it is associated with sustainable spending practices. The town of Walpole has a bad habit of agreeing to spend money it can’t pay for, through unsustainable union contracts, and then passing the cost on to taxpayers when the bill comes due.

The town’s current union contracts, most of which passed through Town Meeting with hardly any discussion or scrutiny, have been an albatross for the town budget – loaded with expensive longevity bonuses, mandatory pay raises not tied to performance, and cost-of-living increases that don’t match actual economic conditions.

Part of the reason why the contracts remain so out-of-touch is that taxpayers, who ultimately pay the cost of the contracts, have no seat at the negotiating table. That contrasts with the private sector, where one of the parties in collective bargaining is generally the business manager or owner who is directly impacted by the cost of the union contracts he negotiates.

The Walpole school district is preparing to bargain a new contract with the Walpole Teachers Association.

If town officials want to follow up the rhetoric on “sustainability” with action, they should bring town collective bargaining sessions out of the back rooms and out to the public. All negotiating sessions between municipal officials and union leaders should be held in the open at a public meeting.

The notion of opening up collective bargaining to the public is relatively new, but has gained momentum in many local governments around the nation. The idea has received some mixed reviews from union officials and members, though some are apparently indifferent.

This month, the St. Lucie County School District in Florida is holding their teachers union collective bargaining in public, but at a couple recent bargaining sessions the union members took most of the auditorium seats that were supposed to be open to the public and chanted and waved their hands in solidarity while the negotiations took place.

The Douglas County School District in Colorado also held their collective bargaining session with the teachers’ union in public earlier this year. Administrators said it was an effort to ensure that union members were not being silenced by their leaders. The union and district are still to this day, however, at an impasse in negotiations.

When Chicago teachers went on strike this month, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn renewed his call for collective bargaining between teachers and the Chicago schools to be open to the public.

Zorn conceded that “anecdotal news reports from elsewhere where negotiations with public sector unions are subject to sunshine laws indicate that, yes, there can be grandstanding and, yes, the spotlight can inhibit the exploratory exchange of hypotheticals and the mutual concessions often necessary to reach a satisfactory compromise.”

That said, Zorn points out that “a certain interested third party — I refer to the public whose tax dollars will fund the resulting agreement and whose children, in some cases, will attend the schools — gets an obvious advantage: The ability to watch, to learn and even to weigh in as the process unfolds, rather than to have the contract presented at the end as a done deal.”

It makes sense for union negotiations to be held in public. For too long, taxpayers have been asked to shoulder the burden of these expensive contracts yet have never been given an opportunity to see how the negotiations – about their tax dollars – take place. Every dollar of spending that goes through town government is supposed to be relentlessly scrutinized.

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