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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Protest Over Closed-Door State Labor Negotiations

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

The state of Washington resumed bargaining sessions Wednesday with its unionized employees. Protesters showed up to criticize the secret nature of the meetings.

The protesters, from the conservative Freedom Foundation, chanted, “Secret meetings have got to go,” and waved signs that read “Transparency Now.” They were greeted by staff and members of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The Federation’s Tim Welch tried to hand out cups of tea to the dozen or so activists.

“Because we know how much you guys love tea and tea parties,” he quipped.

The protesters declined the hospitality, but asked to attend the bargaining session. One of the protesters asked if they could go inside "and see what they’re doing."

Welch responded, “Right now it’s like watching paint dry. There is no bargaining going on right now.”

Even if there was something to see, these labor negotiations are closed-door affairs. It’s been this way for more than a decade. In 2002, Washington’s governor was given the authority to negotiate master agreements with state employee labor unions. The agreements cover everything from workplace conditions to healthcare to pay.

“It is not an understatement to say you’re talking about potentially hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Jason Mercier of the right-of-center Washington Policy Center.

He said these negotiations have major implications for the state budget – especially in light of a Supreme Court ruling that says the legislature is underfunding public schools.

This year, state employees are pushing hard for a cost-of-living increase, something they haven’t received since 2008. Welch won’t say how much of an increase his union is asking for. And he argues it would be counter-productive to open the doors to the negotiations.

“The problem is that proposals change,” he explained. “You’re trying to get a middle and each side will come in. It’s bargaining, you know what bargaining is.”

Welch noted the Washington legislature will have the ultimate say with an up or down vote on the final contracts.

Oregon requires labor negotiations to be open, but there’s an exemption in the law that allows both sides to mutually agree to negotiate privately in executive session.

As for the Washington negotiations, they could wrap up this September. Then the governor’s budget office will review the contracts for economic feasibility. The final agreements will go to the legislature in January.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."