Op-Ed: Transparency in Public Sector Bargaining

Senator Ryan P. Aument

Over the past number of years a new and much-needed trend in state government has emerged – the support for transparency in how the peoples’ business is conducted.

The idea is simple – promote systems that allow issues and decisions to be seen, easy to understand, and honest and open about what is happening, not secretive.

While there has always been some access for citizens to see their government working, the hard push for transparency really began several years ago when the General Assembly rebooted an outdated version of Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law, which gave people much greater access to materials that can help them understand how the important decisions of government are made.

I support transparency in government.

This is exactly why I have introduced legislation that would remove the current exemptions that exist in the law for collective bargaining processes for public sector unions and the government.

For far too long public sector unions, from the local school district level all the way to the statewide organizations, have been meeting with government leaders behind closed doors to hammer out their employment contracts.

After these closed-door sessions are complete – and usually after a lot of give-and-take by both sides – the government representatives and union leaders emerge and declare victory that an agreement was reached.

Then, sometime after this private process is done, taxpayers are shown the result.

It is little wonder that public sentiment is moving against both public sector unions and the government leaders that are negotiating these deals, given this process.

While both sides argue that the result is fair, it is certainly understandable that the public questions the outcome.  There is, after all, no way for them to see how the final contract was actually created.

For example, how were the final salary increases figured?  How much did each side move from its initial position to the final result?  What arguments were made in favor of the positions that the sides took?

These are just a few questions that, if the public were to have access to the negotiations, they could answer for themselves.  Everyone, including taxpayers, could judge the value of a contract, both the cost of it and the investment it is making in our publicly funded employees.

A prime example is the current situation involving the ongoing labor issues between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF).

APSCUF has been working without a contract since July 2015.

Since that time, and for the past number of years, PASSHE, which owns and operates 14 universities in Pennsylvania, has been working hard to address serious financial and systematic issues.  If those issues remain unresolved, they threaten one of our Commonwealth’s crown jewels – access to high-quality, affordable, publicly financed higher education.

Despite these unprecedented challenges, PASSHE put on the table an offer that would provide faculty raises averaging nearly 12 percent over three years.  That pay package would raise faculty salaries by a combined $159 million over the life of the proposed contract. Individual faculty members would receive increases ranging from 7.25 percent to 17.25 percent (plus additional cash payments for those at the top of the salary schedule).

The raises being offered would be dependent upon APSCUF agreeing to the same healthcare plan changes already applied to all other employees in PASSHE’s healthcare plan, as well as to other contractual changes that would produce total cost savings of about $70 million.

Unfortunately, APSCUF rejected this proposal and the two sides continue to work to find agreement, which I hope happens very soon.

While 110,000 students and their families wait for this situation to be resolved, one thing is clear – the public, which funds PASSHE, cannot fairly weigh in on which side is being reasonable.

This is because all the negotiations, proposals, counter-proposals, and discussions are being held behind closed doors, although PASSHE did take the commendable step of publicly posting its offer to APSCUF on its website.
Consider another example – the union contract recently negotiated in secret by Governor Wolf’s administration.

In August of this year, the Governor announced he had a deal with the state’s two major public sector unions.  While he and the unions celebrated the deal, it wasn’t until September 27 that we learned the cost – $525.2 million over three years.

Without judging any of the results of these union contracts, I join with all those that want to promote transparency in government.

I believe, and I think most people agree, that public sector collective bargaining should be done in a manner that shines light on the closed-door negotiations that have far reaching cost and employee implications.

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