In the months and years ahead, the economic reality of the coronavirus shutdown will collide in dramatic fashion with the priorities of public sector unions.
This month, many government agencies will be negotiating new labor contracts with union officials — contracts that will set pay schedules, determine salary increases and govern the personnel costs for each agency. What is decided in these negotiations will largely determine if a government agency can cope with the coming budget shortfall — or if they will instead be forced to hike taxes on Nevadans who are struggling with historic unemployment and tight budgets of their own.
And yet, these critical negotiations aren’t even open to the public. Both taxpayers and public workers alike will be left completely locked out of the process as discussions take place behind closed doors.
Such secrecy in such critical budget discussions is made possible only because, while Nevada’s Open Meetings Law requires government agencies to conduct their business in a public setting, union’s have managed to carve out a specific exemption to that law for contract negotiations with government employers. And the result is a negotiation process that shields political insiders — politicians, government officials and union leaders — from accountability.
For workers, the benefits of transparency seem obvious — which is likely why two-thirds of union members support making contract negotiations transparent, according to a February 2020 poll conducted by Nevada Policy. Workers who are facing layoffs, cutbacks or reduced benefits stand to gain tremendously by knowing how their unions (and politicians) are representing their interest.
However, for taxpayers, transparency is even more critical. And it’s even more popular as well, with 73 percent of likely Nevada voters supporting it in that same February poll.
As government agencies grapple with budget deficits that will make the 2008 crash look like “the good old days,” unions are going to dig in their heels against austerity because… well, because that’s literally their job. Such resistance to spending cuts — whether it be layoffs, freezing salaries, postponing new hires or any other reduction in personnel costs — will be coupled with a reenergized, union-lead, lobbying effort for higher taxes precisely when struggling Nevadans are least able to afford it.
The fact that this entire negotiation will happen behind closed doors means taxpayers will have no ability to determine how their elected representatives are defending their interests during a time when most Nevadans are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods.
Furthermore, such secrecy in the union contract process exacerbates political favoritism and cronyism among politicians and union leaders, leaving the concerns of taxpayers desperately underrepresented. After all, government-sector unions aren’t actually negotiating against the interests of some greedy businessman, they’re negotiating against the interests of taxpayers. And politicians, who are supposed to defend the concerns of taxpayers, are too often willing to instead defer to politically powerful union leaders.
It’s easy to understand why. Politicians recognize that government unions can support their election campaigns through donations, volunteers, get-out-the-vote drives and other efforts. Organized labor most certainly recognize the leverage this gives them while negotiating new contracts, and the result is a process where unions are “negotiating” how to spend taxpayer dollars with the very politicians that need their help to be reelected.
Public oversight, and making these discussions transparent, could act as a bulwark against such crony opportunism by boosting accountability — allowing taxpayers to ensure elected representatives aren’t putting political ambitions ahead of the public interest.
It’s an idea that transcends party lines and is strongly favored by both public sector workers and taxpayers alike. During his time as a Clark County Commissioner, Governor Steve Sisolak once said, “everybody should be in favor of transparency.” Well, Nevadans are overwhelmingly in support of it. Unfortunately, the government class — labor leaders and the politicians that depend on the political support of unions — simply are not.
Taxpayers and public sector workers deserve the right to know what’s being negotiated when unions and government officials decide how to spend our tax dollars. With Nevadans struggling to rebuild their livelihoods and our state economy, such transparency will be more important than ever.
Michael Schaus is the Communications Director at Nevada Policy Research Institute.