It’s Time for the Sun to Shine on Collective Bargaining Negotiations

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THIS BLOG POST IS ONE OF SEVERAL GUEST EDITORIALS THAT WILL BE PUBLISHED DURING SUNSHINE WEEK (March 14 – 20), HIGHLIGHTING THE NEED FOR MORE GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY.  

By Donna Green

The following testimony was provided to the House Judiciary Committee on House Bill 206 which, if passed, would require collective bargaining negotiations to be public:

I am President of the School District Governance Association of NH.  We are a private organization whose mission is to give voters a voice by empowering elected school district officials to reclaim control over budgets and curriculum. In addition to offering seminars/webinars to educate and inform school board and budget committee members, we have a legislative agenda of increasing transparency in the budgeting and collective bargaining process in school districts. This is the second time we have attempted this bill.  It passed the Senate in 2018 (SB420) and we are grateful to Representative Turcotte and the other sponsors for working to advance it again.

This change to the Right to Know law is not a radical proposal, nor is it “anti-union.”  As of 2018, 15 states do not have any exemptions from their open meetings laws for public employee collective bargaining. In other words, in 15 states, government employees and public bodies must negotiate in public.  One additional state ( Alaska) requires school districts specifically to hold public negotiations. Three more states require contracts to be made public before ratification by a public body. Nineteen states, then, have some transparency requirement for public sector collective bargaining. Three states don’t allow government employees to collectively bargain at all, which brings the total of states like NH to 28.

I, personally, became convinced of the need for public view of negotiations during my own experience as a school board member on our district’s negotiating team. It was evident to me that the behavior I observed from my own team would be unlikely to occur in public. Furthermore, the public, I believed, probably assumes a lot more high powered facts and arguments than ultimately ensued. Pulling back the curtain of secrecy from all this would hold our elected representatives to greater accountability and also give union members a much better understanding of how well their team is working on their behalf.  Based on my experience, I believe, both sides would be surprised.

Some people object to public negotiations by asserting that compromises can’t be forged in public.  To them I ask, what kinds of compromises are your forging that require secrecy?

In this time of great social unrest because of mistrust of public institutions, I would respectfully suggest that it is incumbent on you to require the most transparency possibly in the conduct of governmental affairs, especially where the majority of our taxpayer dollars are spent and, for sadly, diminishing results.

As the law stands now, if both sides agree on negotiating in public, they may do so.  If the taxpayer representatives request open negotiations, but the union representatives do not, an old PELRB ruling requires both parties to conduct negotiations secretly. This is why we are asking you to change the law to require both parties to do the right thing. Making negotiations public will give both represented parties more insight into how their interests are being represented and advanced, with better accountability for elected officials and union leadership.

Donna Green is the President of the School District Governance Association (SDGA) and also a member of Right to Know NH (RTKNH).  The School District Governance Association (SDGA) gives voters a voice by empowering elected school district officials to reclaim control over budgets and curriculum.

Donna Green is a member of RTKNH. She can be emailed at righttoknownh@gmail.com