laurel-and-hardy-shh-150x150-5976094Why are contract negotiations between public officials and public employee unions routinely conducted behind closed doors? One of New York’s largest public-sector unions has spilled the beans: it’s better for them.

The Public Employees Federation (PEF), which represents about 52,000 state employees, this week issued a video update on its negotiations with the Cuomo administration. Lead negotiator Darlene Williams said:

“While we will do our best to keep you informed, it is important to understand that we cannot negotiate a contract in the public as that will only hurt our efforts by showing our hand and giving the governor’s team an advantage in bargaining.”

Translation: letting the public see what’s going on would help Cuomo drive a harder bargain on behalf of state taxpayers, and that can’t be allowed.

“The public,” here, includes PEF’s own members, who don’t know which of their concerns are (and aren’t) making it on to the negotiating table. Union executives are pleased to take contract talks behind closed doors in no small part because it gives them plausible deniability when deals don’t meet specific expectations.

Private talks also let unions shield their original demands from public scrutiny, helping them engender greater support from voters. New York unions have been known to demand contract language shielding workers from termination the first time they’re caught using heroin on the job. And they routinely seek benefit levels that exceed those to which private-sector employees are accustomed.

Union contracts dictate more than just pay and benefits. They set the terms and conditions under which most government services are delivered, such as the length of the work day and the roles of employees. But in the 52 years since New York’s adopted its public-sector collective bargaining law, the Taylor Law, public officials have succumbed to the pernicious falsehood that union negotiations must take place behind closed doors.

To be sure, once union negotiations have begun in secret, they must remain there. Both management and labor face sanctions if they divulge what’s gone on behind closed doors, as such an action would be considered bargaining in “bad faith.” But that only applies because management routinely consents to taking matters outside public view—which, for labor, constitutes a win from the onset.

Once a deal is reached, elected officials routinely rush to ratify deals before the public can examine the cost or policy implications.

The results, in some cases, have been ruinous not only for taxpayers but also for government employees themselves. A hurried 2007 labor deal between the Southern Tier village of Johnson City and its firefighters resulted in the village inadvertently agreeing to 41 percent raises over five years. The result: firefighters had to be laid off.

The lack of transparency around labor talks remains a problem long after the ink dries.

Public employers are routinely failing to file ratified labor contracts with the state Public Employment Relations Board as required by PERB’s regulations. After 675 deals were signed and filed with the state in 2006, just 31 contracts were filed last year. This suggests at least 95 percent of public employers are ignoring a rule that exists to make sure taxpayers can see the commitments their elected officials have made. And a 2014 Empire Center review of local government and school districts found most were failing to even post their ratified labor contracts on their websites.

To his credit, Governor Andrew Cuomo last year proposed a modest reform that would have required contracts to be made public “no later than when such proposed terms are sent to members of the employee organization for ratification,” meaning taxpayers would be able to review and weigh in on deals before their elected officials can ratify it—and force them to abide by the terms for years to come.

That prompted Fran Turner, a lobbyist for the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), to push back in her legislative testimony:

“We’re very much opposed to it because our members should be able to vote on their contract before it goes public to the citizens. Right?”

Wrong. It’s the citizens who have to find the money to pay for these deals. They deserve to see what they involve before they’re permanent. And they deserve to see how they’re made.

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

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