Union Negotiations Lack Transparency

Seventy-six percent of Jamestown’s $33.6 million budget is earmarked for salaries and benefits for city employees.

By and large, that 76 percent – more than $25 million – crowds out spending for other initiatives in a city that has now used 93.3 percent of its constitutional taxing limit. Cutting that spending is next to impossible due to contracts negotiated years ago.

Year after year, Jamestown taxpayers are asked to keep writing tax checks they increasingly have trouble affording to pay for wages and benefits they have no control over.

The typical municipal contract negotiation has workers on one side of the table and a government negotiating team on the other side. The sides negotiate behind closed doors, eventually coming to an agreement on what the employees should be paid, if there should be changes to their step increases, what the employees’ health insurance contributions should be and any other incidental issues that need to be negotiated – things like how much accrued sick time and vacation the municipality will pay when an employee retires, who buys uniforms, shift differentials and the like.

Once all the loose ends are tied up, the sides shake hands on the deal. The entire union meets to ratify the contract, at which point the municipality’s legislative branch approves the contract. Mayor Sam Teresi does a good job of keeping City Council officials in the loop on contract negotiations, but it is a bit unfair to part-time legislators to have scant days to review a 100 page contract that refers to things negotiated decades ago and that was negotiated over the course of months.

It’s not quite three men in a room, but it’s darn close.

Secrecy in negotiations allows both the union bargaining unit and the municipal negotiating team to deploy maximum leverage and start the discussions from unreasonable positions. They know, if a contract goes to arbitration, the arbitrator typically does not decide based on the point of impasse but from those original, unreasonable positions. The lack of transparency in the process effectively means 76 percent of Jamestown’s budget is decided with next to zero public oversight.

The end result of this system is the sort of disparity between private sector wages and public sector wages we see in Jamestown. In Sunday’s edition, we reported the average wage for a city of Jamestown employee is $53,776- an average that far eclipses the median earnings for private wage workers in Jamestown of $21,472.

We’re not picking on Jamestown. This is how union negotiations are handled in every municipality and school district statewide and, actually, throughout much of the country.

Thus far, Florida and Tennessee are the only states in the country with transparent union coverage. New York should join them by making union negotiations subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law. Florida mandates open meetings whether the union negotiates with city officials, a committee or the city’s elected or appointed leader. Florida also makes all documentation generated in the course of the negotiations classified as public records.

Perhaps the oldest cliche in the book when it comes to union negotiations is the sides won’t negotiate in public.

It is time to retire that old cliche. It’s plum worn out.