Shine a Light on the Collective Bargaining Process

Gov. Tom Wolf has an opportunity to deliver a fresh start to Pennsylvania’s collective bargaining process.

Over the next few months, the governor and his administration will be negotiating contracts with sixteen government unions behind closed doors. A number of these unions donated millions to the Wolf campaign, putting Gov. Wolf in a position to hand out billions of dollars to his political allies.

This represents a clear conflict of interest amid an opaque negotiation process over contracts that commit lawmakers and taxpayers to billions in additional costs over the next few years. With so much at stake, transparency is vital.  

Here are three policy ideas to remove the shroud surrounding the collective bargaining process:

1. Make contract negotiations open to the public. Section 707 of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act permits, but does not require, the exclusion of union contract negotiations from the law’s open meetings requirement. Gov. Wolf can champion transparency by making union contract negotiations public and assuring Pennsylvanians that he’s fighting for the interests of all, not just his campaign contributors.

2. Publicize collective bargaining agreements before ratification. Each collective bargaining agreement should be publicly available before a ratification vote is scheduled. Taxpayers should have the opportunity to read and weigh in on the specifics of a given agreement.

3. Determine the cost of each collective bargaining agreement before ratification. Imagine if a restaurant didn’t list the price of its menu items, but ordered for you and required you to pay the bill anyway. The current collective bargaining process operates similarly. Taxpayers and lawmakers should have the opportunity to see the bill before being required to pay it.

Senator Ryan Aument recently introduced legislation (SB 643) making collective bargaining meetings open to the public. On the House side, Representatives Matt Gabler, Fred Keller, and Tommy Sankey plan to introduce legislation requiring posting of agreements and their costs online before they are officially approved.

These reforms would allow Pennsylvania voters to be a participant in the collective bargaining process, rather than an afterthought.

The push for contract transparency in Pennsylvania is not unique. A number of states have already moved to make contract negotiations transparent:

  • In 2013, the Idaho legislature passed a bill making all contract negotiations between school districts and local teachers’ unions open to the public. Idaho may soon move to provide even greater transparency by opening all union contract negotiations to the public.
  • Last November, voters in Colorado approved Proposition 104, which requires public access to collective bargaining negotiations involving school boards and unions.
  • Minnesota law states “All negotiations, mediation sessions, and hearings between public employers and public employees or their respective representatives are public meetings except when otherwise provided by the commissioner.”
  • According to the Freedom Foundation, eleven states provide some type of public access to collective bargaining. The total rises to twelve if Colorado’s recent reforms are included. 

Public sector union leaders will likely oppose these commonsense transparency measures, and if they do, they should bring their own ideas aimed at giving Pennsylvanians a louder voice in contract negotiations. As Gov. Wolf said, “It’s not good enough to just say no and continue with the same old same old.”