Finding Balance Through Transparency
One of the biggest issues in public policy today has to do with the collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, that are negotiated between some government unions and the government entities that employ union labor. These agreements can have huge implications for our communities’ future budgets and, ultimately, our tax levels.
That’s why recent, troubling news out of Saint Louis County should concern anyone interested in good, effective, and financially secure government. I’ve spoken to a number of firefighters in Saint Louis County recently, and the stories I’m hearing are not good: self-dealing, intimidation, fire district board members using bulletproof vests in their meetings. Something has gone awry.
In response to this strife, some fire districts are trying something new. At Monarch Fire Protection District, instead of holding collective bargaining meetings behind closed doors, the board has decided to open up the process to the public, as Missouri’s Sunshine Law requires them to do with most other meetings. So far the results have been promising.
So why isn’t this already standard practice with government collective bargaining? After all, collective bargaining meetings are deliberative processes where public officials set public policy, including employee compensation, work rules, and grievance procedures.
Missouri Sunshine Law (a.k.a. Open Meetings and Records Law) provides that public government bodies may close meetings, records, and votes to the extent they relate to a negotiated contract until that contract is executed or all proposals are rejected. Hence, government bodies close collective bargaining sessions with government unions under the theory that collective bargaining is a contract negotiation.
Collective bargaining is a contract negotiation of sorts, but it is not the same as contracting with an outside firm. Collective bargaining is a negotiation between staff and management over internal operations. Because policy can be set in these bargaining sessions, exempting government collective bargaining from the Sunshine Law is a mistake, especially when the public is concerned about labor relations at a government entity upon which they depend.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote,
Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.
Expanding the scope of Missouri’s transparency laws to cover collective bargaining meetings and access to government records would be one good way to alleviate the labor relations problems we’re seeing in the public sector.