Washington state taxpayers fund both sides of labor negotiations

More than two dozen unions have just concluded contract negotiations for public employees in Washington state.

The Washington Public Employees Association (WPEA) wins the prize this year for the best swindling of another union, at taxpayer expense. WPEA just negotiated a 1.6 percent raise for 2009 and a 1.7 raise for 2010.

WPEA also negotiated into its contract a “me, too” clause that provides it with the option of upgrading its contract if another state employee union negotiates a bigger pay increase. Since the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) negotiated for a 2 percent increase, WPEA members will likely opt to receive the larger increase.

In fact, most of the unions negotiating contracts with the governor’s office have won pay increases of about 2 percent for each of the next two years.

The similarities among contracts have some union workers wondering if collective bargaining is working the way it was intended.

If everyone gets pretty much the same thing, why have different unions?

While union members are left to wonder whether their unions are really representing their interests, taxpayers should ask whether this collective bargaining approach makes sense for them.

Out of 25 master agreements, 13 were negotiated with employees who receive paid release time from the state.

Release time allows a certain number of unionized employees to spend time as union representatives at the negotiation sessions.

Of course, these employees are also being paid for their state jobs at the same time.

That’s right. State employees are paid by taxpayers to negotiate on behalf of their unions for more of taxpayers’ money.

The number of bargaining team members and days covered is established by existing labor contracts or tentative agreements early in a new round of negotiations.

This year, up to 855 days of release time were granted, and the final numbers will not be available until October.

For WPEA, this meant nine team members were covered for the first seven days, for a total of 63 days of release time.

The Teamsters had 16 members covered for seven days, for a total of 112 days. WFSE received a staggering 175 days for its general government contract talks and 104 days for higher education.

Looking at the process from the outside, it is hard for us to calculate the exact cost of release time because we would need to know who bargained for all unions involved, how much those people worked, and at what rate of pay.

What we know is that the average income and benefits for a public employee at the state and local government level in Washington total $197.88 per day, according to our analysis of the latest personal income figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis.

If we use this figure, 855 days of paid release time equals $169,187.40 of taxpayer funds.

Taxpayers are on the hook not only for the costs of the agreements, but for the time spent in negotiating the contract. The $169,000 is in addition to salaries of about 19 full-time workers at the Labor Relations Office, which negotiates the state’s position on these contracts.

The remaining 12 unions involved in talks did not use release time.

Half of those unions have provisions for their negotiators to be reimbursed by the union or have their time covered by a union leave bank.

This method ensures that negotiator costs for time and resources be paid for by unions, not the state.

And since unions are now collecting dues or fees from a majority of government workers, they should have the funds necessary to employ their members to collectively bargain.

Legislators and the governor should consider ending the practice of release time. A worker who acts in two capacities at the same time is unfair to taxpayers and adds unnecessary costs to the collective bargaining process.

Besides, if unions are going to negotiate for essentially the same increase through “me, too” clauses, why should the state continue to pay for employees of several unions to negotiate while only a few from one union set the pace?

With a growing budget deficit next year, shouldn’t abolishing release time be on the table?

Scott Dilley is a labor policy analyst at Evergreen Freedom Foundation. Sonya Jones is director of the Labor Policy Center at Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

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