Union threatens unfair labor practice if county holds transparent meetings

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MONTESANO — The business agent for the county’s largest union put the kibosh on plans by County Commissioner Wes Cormier to open up union negotiation sessions to the public.

“We have a contract with Grays Harbor County, not with the public,” the union representative said, adding that an unfair labor practice complaint would be filed if Cormier pursues the issue.

Cormier says he was honestly taken aback by the threat.

The union was set to meet with the county commissioners on Wednesday to begin negotiations.

Cormier, a former union steward in the Assessor’s Office before he was elected commissioner, says he wanted to open up the negotiations so that any member of the public could sit in and get an understanding for the process. Cormier said he honestly doesn’t feel like the public understands the way union negotiations work and wanted to get rid of the cloak of secrecy behind it. Typically, bargaining sessions have been closed-door to anyone who isn’t specifically invited in.

He inquired with the staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees if that would be possible.

“I would like to inquire whether the union would be agreeable to hold open public negotiations,” Cormier wrote. “This question is being sent with the best intent to fairly negotiate terms of the agreement. I believe in the public ability to have as much transparency as possible in all governmental processes. It is my opinion and view that matters such as labor negotiations by public entities should be open to the public.”

The first and only response from the union was in a letter on July 30 threatening repeatedly to file an unfair labor practices complaint if Cormier continued down that route.

“The Union will not agree to public negotiations,” writes Hannah Franks, staff representative with the union. The letter was also sent to county employee union heads, along with the union’s general counsel.

“We believe this is an unfair labor practice for several reasons,” Franks adds. “We have a contract with Grays Harbor County, not with the public. The requirements of good faith bargaining under RCW 41.56 are that the county and the union meet and confer. The public is not a party to the contract. We believe that opening negotiations to the public is in contradiction with good faith bargaining and is interference. By opening negotiations to the public, it would coerce public employees to be fearful of exercising their collective bargaining rights, It has a chilling effect on the members of the union and their willingness to participate in negotiations. Additionally, we believe that this is domination, as our members now feel intimidated to sit at the bargaining table.

“It is our hope you will reconsider your request to negotiate in front of the public,” she adds. “If you do choose to continue on this path, we will be compelled to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the (state) Public Employment Relations Commission.”

Cormier says he’s disappointed in both the reaction and tone of the letter.

“I promised my constituents I would be all about transparency and that’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said.

Franks tells The Vidette that the union has had a really good relationship with the county commissioners in the past and she honestly feels that the session won’t be a “productive process if they get opened up.” She notes the Open Public Meetings Act allows closed bargaining sessions.

However, Cormier notes that the law also gives the option of those sessions being opened up.

“The county wouldn’t open up their session when making bids on property or other legal matters so I don’t know why they would open it up for this,” she said. “It’s not common practice and I’m the only staff representative I know where this request has been made. These are not exciting sessions. Negotiations are fairly boring.”

Franks said that the public deserves to know the results of labor negotiations, just not be in the meeting.