In a time when a large fiscally conservative grassroots movement like the Tea Parties have developed a strong voice, we shouldn’t be surprised to see calls for greater transparency in government operations. Not only when it comes to the fiscal ledger (“if you can’t defend it, don’t spend it”), but also when it comes to those union negotiations that drive so much of government spending. Should any government contract negotiations be done behind closed doors? Why should unions be treated any differently?
In Colorado Springs a citizen lawsuit has pressured one of the state’s largest school districts to concede to opening up one teachers union bargaining session to public observation. (Decisions on future sessions pending… most likely on the effectiveness of outside public pressure.) To its credit, the Gazette has brought attention to the story to contribute to the public conversation. Even better, inquiring minds want to know: Did one of its reporters attend Friday’s session? Was there anything to report?
Meanwhile, another local grassroots effort to bring about open government union negotiations has occurred more or less under the radar. On March 3 Citizens for Responsible Aurora Government (CRAG) formally requested that the municipal government for Colorado’s third largest city provide taxpaying citizens access to observe bargaining sessions with local police and fire unions. Transparency seems like the backbone for good public policy, right? Well, in a March 23 YourHub article, CRAG spokesman Jim Frye acknowledged that the Aurora city attorney’s denial “was disappointing though not entirely surprising.”
As I wrote in a 2010 issue brief for the Independence Institute, only six states “guarantee open negotiations” for collective bargaining in local government. Among the 42 Colorado school districts that bargain with employee unions, only one “has an established policy that thoroughly ensures the public’s right to observe bargaining negotiations.” What about Colorado municipalities with union contracts? Do any of them have open negotiations?
I am not aware of a thorough study of those questions, but we now have at least one definitive answer: Aurora doesn’t have them. Any other groups out there — especially in Colorado — working to open negotiations in their city or other local government? I’d like to know about it. We the people deserve a little honest transparency. After all, we’re talking about policies that affect government’s sovereign enforcement power and the use of our tax dollars.
Few would suggest a similar policy affecting negotiations between a private company and a group representing its employees. Yet sometimes I think there is a concerted effort on the Left to conceal the differences between private-sector and government employee unions, as if there is no difference. Witness one of the latest examples: the Denver Post‘s Ed Quillen in today’s reality-stretched column insinuating that the agenda of Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere represent “efforts to bust unions.” (His attempt to compare the efforts to antebellum slavery demonstrates a whole other level of ignorance — perhaps of the willful partisan variety.)
Here’s one place you can go for a refresher on the broader argument about government-employee unionism — one made in prior generations by Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and AFL-CIO president George Meany. (I don’t think any rational person has compared them in any substantive sense to the defenders of chattel slavery in the Old South, but I can get back to you on that.) The Left may try to shift the issue away from ensuring good, accountable and fiscally responsible government. Don’t let them get away with it.