County collective bargaining staying behind doors

Commissioner Wes Cormier had moved to approve the resolution, but the motion died for lack of a second.

A resolution to make the collective-bargaining process public for union contracts with Grays Harbor County failed to gather enough traction with the commissioners to earn a vote.

Commissioner Wes Cormier had moved to approve the resolution, but the motion died for lack of a second.

The resolution itself was subject to a hefty amount of opposition from a crowded conference room during Monday’s commission meeting. County residents, as well as people from Tacoma, Seattle, Fife and other cities throughout the state spoke during public comment.

With 30 people speaking total, 21 were opposed to the resolution, eight stated their support and another addressed the commissioners in general about the resolution without clearly stating a position.

Some 75 people were in attendance. Based on applause after each public comment, only a handful or so of the crowd (maybe 10 people) supported the resolution.

Patrick Wadsworth of rural Montesano accused the resolution of being fueled by the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is “working to reverse the strangle hold public-sector unions have on our government,” according to the foundation’s website. That was a common theme of those addressing the commissioners in opposition to the resolution. Wadsworth didn’t mince words about his feelings regarding the foundation.

“Please think this out carefully — this is not a good idea… these negotiations are very critical,” Wadsworth said. “Our people in this county are suffering from not enough income as it is. We can’t keep beating them down… we have to think about the overall picture. We have to keep propping our people up. These are the common working people, and these people that are organized against us are terrible people.”

Commissioner Cormier noted he brought the resolution forward of his own volition and was not lobbied by the Freedom Foundation.

Representatives of the Freedom Foundation were present, however, and they spoke in support of the resolution. Matthew Hayward of the Freedom Foundation noted that transparency would be good for all parties involved.

“The union members themselves need to know what’s going on,” Hayward said. “This is a huge benefit to union members as well as the taxpayers.”

Scott Roberts, also a representative of the Freedom Foundation, pledged the organization’s support in the event that a lawsuit is waged against the county if the resolution was approved.

Other supporters of the resolution, including Sue Kuehl-Pederson, who unsuccessfully challenged state Sen. Dean Takko in the November election, touted the openness, transparency and honesty the resolution would bring, and some spoke to their general opposition to unions, citing anecdotal and personal instances when they had been wronged because of unions.

Those stating their opposition accused the resolution of being a union-busting effort and a “gateway” to right-to-work policies, to which they also were opposed.

Gilbert Myers of Aberdeen accused the commissioners of bringing the resolution forward “without notice — like a thief in the night.”

The commissioners noted that the resolution had been added to the agenda following the letter of the law.

In the end, Cormier moved to approve the resolution and his fellow commissioners were silent. Cormier noted that the motion died for lack of a second and the crowd erupted into applause.

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Vickie Raines said the decision was difficult.

“I understand both sides of the issue… It isn’t anything that’s new to me — I was raised in a very strong union family,” Raines said. She noted a personal account from her childhood of when her father’s union went on strike and the hardships her family endured.

“I can remember standing with my mom in the welfare line to get generic peanut butter and generic eggs and butter to take home and that’s all we had in addition to the union check that we received on a weekly basis,” she said. “It’s important for me as an individual… there’s a principle there that those employees worked and gave up a lot over the years so that many people today have the contracts that they have. I believe the county staff is a priority.”

Commissioner Randy Ross, who was sworn in just this year, cited his inexperience as reason for his lack of second.

“I don’t know what I don’t know yet. I haven’t been through the negotiating process,” Ross said. “I believe things should be open and transparent, but there are some things that I don’t think you can negotiate in the open public.”

A similar resolution failed to move forward in April 2015. While the then-commission of Cormier, Raines and former commissioner Frank Gordon allowed Cormier’s motion to die for lack of a second, Raines and Gordon also voted to deny the resolution.

The current commission doesn’t seem as adamantly opposed. Ross said he remains open-minded.

“I won’t close out the idea of bringing this back at some point in time,” he said.

While some union representatives during public comment had said the process of collective bargaining already is transparent, Cormier disagreed.

“I was in the union, and I was a union steward, and I didn’t get to see what was done behind closed doors as a union member,” Cormier said. “I even asked to be on the negotiating team as a union member and I was not afforded that opportunity. Did I see what was going on behind the scenes? Absolutely not.”

For Cormier, despite any of the accusations made during public comment, the resolution was focused on transparency.

“This wasn’t about the Freedom Foundation. It wasn’t about right to work. It wasn’t about union versus management. It wasn’t about Republican versus Democrat. That’s what it wasn’t about,” Cormier said. “What it was about, and why I brought it forward, is transparency.”

“I ran on transparency… this is something I would like to see become public,” Cormier said.