System of negotiating public union contracts unfair to everyone
By Daniel Re / Bulletin guest columnist
Published: April 15. 2011 4:00AM PST
As reported in The Bulletin on April 2, the Bend Police union and the Bend Firefighters union asked for private negotiations with the city regarding salary changes for 2012. Under Oregon law, labor negotiations are required to be held in open meetings, not private meetings, unless both sides request private meetings, and the law has been that way since 1995. The request for private meetings by the unions was not sufficient to exclude the public. That happened only because the city also agreed to private meetings. The city has refused to explain why it made that decision, but it is very convenient for both the members of the city negotiating team and the unions. Now, they get to secretly decide what the people of Bend are going to pay them for 2012. And the people of Bend will know nothing about that decision until after it has been made. This procedure is clearly inconsistent with the city’s organizational chart, which places the people of Bend at the top. It makes no sense that city employees can negotiate their own salary and benefits, and they don’t have to tell the boss what they are doing until after they have done it. Either the secret negotiations should stop or the city should change the organizational chart and put the people at the bottom because that is where they are when union negotiations are secret.
While the secret negotiation of public employee contracts is a concern, in my opinion there is a much more serious problem. That problem is that the people who make up the city negotiation team that negotiates with the unions on behalf of the people of Bend are Bend public employees. These management employees are not union members, but they receive similar benefits to what they agree to give the union members. They get the same retirement and health care benefits, and they receive similar salary increases. There is nothing unfair about those increases because the management employees should maintain their relative financial position with respect to the union members. The problem is that they have a direct financial interest in the outcome of the negotiations, and that interest is the same interest that the unions have. Human nature makes them want to get the most they can for themselves, and that natural influence prevents the negotiating team from effectively representing the people of Bend. The only persons represented in the secret negotiations are the public employees who are sitting on both sides of the table.
If you think this system is fair, then you would agree that it would be just as fair to turn the tables and require the union members to be represented in the negotiations by a group of private citizens who are not union members. The city would also be represented by a similar group of private citizens. These two groups would meet in secret and then tell the public employees what salary and benefits they are going to receive. As absurd as this sounds, the reverse of it is exactly what is happening to the nonpublic employee citizens of Bend, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining the financial problems Bend is facing today.
It is true that whatever agreement is negotiated between the city management team and the unions, that agreement must still be approved by the City Council, but I can find no record that the Bend City Council has ever modified a negotiated union contract. To correct this problem, the Bend City Council can and should appoint a team of private citizens to negotiate with the unions. These citizens would not be public employees, and they would not have the same financial stake in the outcome of the negotiations that the union members have. The public employees have a team of very experienced Portland attorneys to represent their interests. They do not need any help from the city’s negotiating team. The current system is unfair to everyone involved in it, and it is especially unfair to the people of Bend who will have to pay for the secretly negotiated agreement. The current system does, however, explain why both the unions and the city prefer to keep the bargaining secret until an agreement has been reached.
Daniel Re lives in Bend.
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