The public union negotiation trap

June 24, 2017

Mike F. Brown


The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors’ recent ratification of several expensive employee labor contracts reminds us that the process is devastating for the taxpayers and the public interest. The problem is that the contracts are negotiated in secret by county staffers, labor law consultants, and the employee unions’ expert negotiators. The process entraps the county and ultimately the taxpayers.

The public is not allowed to observe the negotiating sessions. Staff communication with the board of supervisors to receive direction takes place in confidential executive sessions. The public and media have no idea about the scope and cost of union demands or the county’s counter proposals.

In the end, the finished contract is placed on the board agenda, and it is only then that the public finds out what it’s going to cost and other details. At that point it is too late for the board to reject the contract even if the public objects. This is because of a state law (the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act. – not to be confused with the Ralph M. Brown Act, which pertains to open meetings) requires “bargaining in good faith.”

Once the supervisors have tentatively agreed, and the union has been informed and its members have ratified the contract, the board may not change its mind. If it did, the union would file an unfair labor practice with the State Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), charging the board of supervisors members with bargaining in bad faith. Board members and the county could face legal penalties.

Supervisors who vote against the contract in closed session are allowed to vote against it when it reaches the public meeting, but those who supported it may not change their minds. Supervisor Debbie Arnold actually did vote against several of the contracts and had apparently voted against them in closed sessions.

Currently, there is no law requiring that the contracts be negotiated in secret or forbidding local governments from reporting periodically on demands and progress to keep the public informed.  Instead, the secret arrangement is a practice supported by both governments and unions and is usually embedded in negotiation ground rules adopted by mutual agreement of the parties at the start of negotiations.

It should be noted that there is a current effort, Assembly Bill 1455, which has passed the Assembly and is under consideration in the Senate, which would make public disclosure of proposals illegal. The bill is in response to efforts by the City of Costa Mesa and other jurisdictions to make their process more transparent to the public.

Another problem is that the California Open Meeting Law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, exempts city councils, boards of supervisors, and boards of special districts from being required to discuss their labor strategy or direction with respect to a particular set of negotiations in public. Note that the Act does not forbid them from holding the discussions in public.

California’s open meeting laws allow a local agency governing body to meet in closed session to provide instructions to the agency’s bargaining representatives. These sessions may take place both before and during labor negotiations. The instructions can include parameters on salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

Discussions on funding priorities and available funds may occur, but only insofar as necessary to instruct the agency’s bargaining representatives.

In fact, if someone comes out of closed session and reports on details, he or she can be charged with both an unfair labor practice and violation of the open meeting law. They may be subject to sanctions by the PERB as well as fines by the State Fair Political Practices Commission.

Over the decades, and when multiplied across 58 counties, 450 cities, and thousands of special districts, this exception to public transparency has been a major cause of California’s unsustainable governmental salary and pension costs. These in turn have displaced funds that would otherwise go to maintaining and expanding roads, jails, parks, and other vital facilities.

Of course, these out of control expenditures also burn up funding for the actual ongoing services such as public safety.

As a step toward transparency, we hope the board of supervisors (and all the city councils) would oppose AB 1455 as part of their legislative programs.  Moreover we recommend that the board adopt a new labor bargaining transparency policy, which would take place during negotiations and at a minimum would include:

·         Publication of the union’s initial demands and positions (and estimated costs) at the start of negotiations.

·         Publication of the county’s initial counter proposal.

·         Periodic updates of changes proposed by both parties.

·         Periodic publication of the reasons for impasse and resulting mediation, arbitration, and other mandatory facilitated processes that may take place if agreement is not reached.

·         Periodic cost updates for the various proposals as they evolve, and explanation of the funding sources and impacts on service levels.

·         Periodic publication of the costs for salary increases, reclassification of positions (job titles), pensions, health benefits, overtime, standby time, increased vacation, and all the rest. 

Why should members of the public be denied this information until it is too late for them to express their concerns to the board of supervisors and for the supervisors to consider them?

Here is a perfect no cost opportunity for all the supervisors to promote transparency and lead the way in San Luis Obispo County. At the least, the process should allow the public and media to peer into the trap. We think that over the years such provisions might save tens of millions.

Who would object to that?

Mike Brown is the Government Affairs Director of the Coalition of Labor Agriculture and Business (COLAB) of San Luis Obispo County. He had a 42-year career as a city manager and county executive officer in four states including California. He can be reached at

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Being a public employee is an honor. Communities are about working together to make for a better existence for most. Public employees should be strictly volunteer. All the respect and admiration should be compensation enough.

What are taxes for anyway? Forcing someone to pay taxes is theft. Each individual should decide if they want to donate their money to police, fire, social services, streets, water, dams, etc.

It’s pretty simple.

Unions may have served a purpose at one time in the private sector, but with the mass of rules and regulations currently “protecting” employees from their employers (especially in California) there is zero need for collective bargaining…. ESPECIALLY in the public sector. Public sector unions should be outlawed, as well as their pensions. Go live your life and save your money like the rest of us.

They are all pigs at the trough!

Excellent article. We the taxpayers are the employers of our public employee’s. We the taxpayer should be involved from the beginning and not at the end of these negotiations. The excuse that we always hear is that we HAVE to pay all of these high wages, benefits and retirements in order to have the BEST. Well during my tenure in business I have hired hundreds of people and had to release some too. Believe me we are all expendable and the world will go on just fine with change. Yes there may be a hiccup along the way although in most cases things usually end up for the better.

Recently we are all becoming aware of what these negotiations have done to our economy and the disaster that is ahead of us with the disclosed unfunded retirements that are in the millions. Something needs to be done for a system that is obviously broken. We have politicians that make these decisions because they consider it “free money” as they did not earn it. I would have no problem granting public employees the same pay raise and benefit raises as those on Social Security receive every year. Now that is what I would call an even playing field.

The author of this piece must be outraged with the Republican Health Care plan which was negotiated totally in secret as well.

Sure sbjoe… guess they’ll just have to pass it so you can read what’s in it! Oops…. sorry. I forgot that’s what Pelosi said. My bad.

The original ACA was thrown out there without enough time to properly look it over — a legitimate criticism. They are trying to force the new bill coming out of the Senate through even more quickly. Does the fact that the Dems did wrong act as justification for the GOP to do even worse?

I agree with the author’s premise, but it should be stressed, and he noted it, that the Supervisor’s CAN vote against the terms presented. They just need to be consistent, which means opposing them in negotiations too. Politicians…consistent…honesty…integrity…..yep, we’re screwed.

The employees don’t even get to hear what happens in negotiations, and it is their livelihoods.

Unions protect worker salaries and safety.

Unions have protected me over the years as myself and fellow colleagues stood up to protect patients and prevent retaliation.

I will always support a union. They keep shady corporations from bringing H1-visa holders to the US from 3rd world countries and taking jobs. Ask a Disney engineer what it feels like to train your foreign replacement.

I agree that PRIVATE sector Unions have a place, but PUBLIC sector unions don’t bargain with the people who pay the bills, they bargain with people that get their votes…

Yes and swell their pensions.

Wel elect too many politicians and decision makers who are, quite simply, cowards. Unwilling to tackle truly difficult and contentious decisions.

As I have said many times it is time for the unions to go.Unfair Labor Practices what about Unfair Shafting Of the Tax Payers.It Irks me when I read about how much Social Security people get many in their eighty and nineties get less than seven hundred dollars I know it was not meant to be livable income but let the news people be truthful in their reporting.we are expected to pay outrageous taxes to pay bloated government employees and educate illegals.