In Our View: Time to Talk Tough

Will Gregoire drive a hard bargain in negotiating state-worker contracts?

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Washingtonians might deduce that their governor will drive a hard bargain this week when she begins negotiations with state-worker unions. After all, Chris Gregoire has announced she will retire after two terms in January, and with an Oct. 1 deadline for finalizing the state’s 2013-2015 collective bargaining agreements, she now claims special clout as a lame duck: No re-election pressure during negotiations, and no apprehension about dealing with unions after her successor takes office.That might be conventional wisdom, but we’re not so confident the taxpayers’ best interests will prevail at the bargaining table. Our hesitation is rooted in the innocent-sounding but momentous 2002 Personnel System Reform Act. It shifts public representation in state-worker contract negotiations from the legislative branch to the executive. The governor, not legislators, negotiates for the state. Even as Gregoire’s retirement approaches, it’s uncertain if she’ll hold a tough line and coax state workers into making the same sacrifices during an economic crisis that private-sector workers are making.

Granted, there are a couple of safeguards built into the system that was designed a decade ago. Sadly, they are toothless:

The first is the majestic-sounding Joint Select Committee on Employment Relations, which was established by the 2002 reform. This is the group with which the governor “shall periodically consult … (regarding) compensation and fringe benefit provisions” in union contracts. Take care, though, not to marvel at this powerful board looming over the governor. According to the Washington Policy Center, the committee since 2002 “has never met and thus not been consulted by the governor on the (collective bargaining agreements).”

Also, the 2002 law proclaims that the Legislature can vote down the contracts. Again, don’t get too excited. According to The Seattle Times, this has never happened. Instead: “Legislators have avoided that choice by burying the contract provisions in budget bills.”

In a 2008 op-ed for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, two Democrats -- House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown -- praised the 2002 law for “modernizing Washington’s outdated civil service system.” The act streamlined state government, rewarded performance instead of seniority, helped privatize state projects and led to what the Pew Research Center has declared is one of the nation’s best-managed states.

Here’s our question in response: At what expense to taxpayers, however? Taxpayers continue to support expensive pensions for government workers even though few of those taxpayers have a pension of their own. This must change.

And as for Gregoire, Chopp and Brown described her as “the toughest negotiator around.” That was in 2008. In 2010, Gregoire wanted unionized state workers to increase their contribution to health care premiums from 12 to 26 percent, which would put them in line with what the Kaiser Family Foundation says is the average in the private sector. Gregoire and union negotiators finally agreed on 15 percent. That’s hardly getting tough with unions.

On many other matters during her two terms, Gov. Gregoire has been as demanding, almost ruthless, as she has been eloquent. At this new bargaining table — which will determine state-worker compensation and benefits for two years after she leaves office — the governor won’t have to worry about politics. She should flex that new power by focusing less on state workers and more on taxpayers.