February 6, 2017 Print

When union negotiations with state governments are held behind closed doors, taxpayers tend to suffer. The Freedom Foundation, an Atlas Network partner based in Olympia, Wash., recently won a landmark victory after the Washington State Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) held that a recently adopted Lincoln County policy, which required all future contract negotiations to be open to the public, was consistent with Washington state labor law.

“Other Washington counties have discussed following Lincoln County’s lead, and hopefully PERC’s clear ruling will embolden them to do so,” said Matthew Hayward, Washington coordinator for the Freedom Foundation. “The whole idea that we’re even having this discussion just goes to show you how upside-down the process in Washington has become. In a sane world, democratically elected governments would feel obligated to be as transparent as possible when it comes to negotiating with the taxpayers’ money. Here it’s just the opposite. The default assumption is that a veil of secrecy is supposed to exist and when one small county dares to lift it, the Teamsters argue with a straight face that open government is somehow not in the public interest.”

The Freedom Foundation represented Lincoln County in the case, which had been instigated by a complained filed in November by Teamsters Local 690 that “claimed the board of commissioners was required to give ample public notice and allow time for debate before issuing its pronouncement.” The Teamsters may still choose to appeal PERC’s dismissal of the complaint, but David Dewhirst, litigation counsel with the Freedom Foundation, suggests that the union would face a losing battle.

“There’s nothing in state law that prevents a local jurisdiction from making its contract negotiations public,” Dewhirst said. “Most don’t, because they’ve been intimidated by the unions into doing this behind closed doors. But there’s no reason it has to be that way.”

The Freedom Foundation is tackling union corruption on multiple fronts. The organization filed a new lawsuit on behalf of a man in Portland, Ore., whose Medicaid compensation payments are being effectively garnished by the SEIU 503 union, which the man had never joined.

“Stop and think for a minute how outrageous this situation is,” said Anne Marie Gurney, Oregon Director for the Freedom Foundation. “In what alternate universe can a private organization simply assume an individual wants to join it and force the state to deduct dues from their paycheck without first getting their permission?”

The Washington state government also recently conceded that it unlawfully withheld information that had been legally requested by the Freedom Foundation in January 2016. Washington delayed release of the records multiple times in order “to give SEIU enough time to request a court order preventing release of the records entirely,” reports Stephanie Olson, litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation. Ultimately, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services “agreed to pay the Freedom Foundation $18,137 in fines and fees, and promised to amend its policy and no longer delays the release of public records solely for the benefit of a third party.”

The Freedom Foundation is working with lawmakers to introduce legislation to reform labor law in Washington, including mandating open meetings for labor negotiations, consumer protections for union members, and an end to funding the salaries of union officials with taxpayer dollars. The organization’s efforts to hold organized labor accountable are funded in part through an Atlas Network Union Transparency and Reform Project grant, and its ongoing results can be found in the “Labor Reform” section of the Freedom Foundation website.