Shed light on contracts!

One of my grandfathers was a cop. (The other played the bagpipes, which, on reflection, is the musical equivalent of what I do as an editorial writer: making loud, annoying noise that nonetheless can sometimes be stirring.) And while a mutant family gene eventually produced more MBAs and Republicans than cops, an allegiance to the working man and labor issues is in my DNA.

That said, I’ve been wondering for the last few months why we are content to accept one of the basic tenets of labor negotiations : secrecy.

The city contracts currently being negotiated include municipal unions; police and fire contracts are left up to an arbitrator. All these jobs are paid with public money. So why isn’t the public more involved and informed about what’s at stake? Why do we accept the informational black out, and not question the culture of back room deals that usually characterize these things?

Salaries and benefits represent a stunning 60 percent of the city’s budget; that’s doesn’t even include the $450 million the city paid into the pension fund. At what point will every cent of our tax dollars go to paying the city workforce?

Instead of open discussions about what the issues are and what the options are, we have mystery theatre: labor gets onstage and paints itself as exploited victims and threatening strikes, and the city paints itself as a most generous and impoverished employer.

Recently, the city delivered a health care proposal for labor that would convert the individual health plans of each union into a single plan under which the city would self-insure. We’ve been asking for details of this plan for over a week. How would it work? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of self-insurance? And we’ve gotten nothing.

What’s the big secret? Typically, the standard for sunshine laws – those laws that regulate when meetings must be open—draw the line at employment information, deeming it too sensitive. We’re not interested in compromising the privacy of individual workers, but we don’t understand why this latest health proposal—as well as others in play as these negotiations drag on -- aren’t for public consumption. At the very least, this information – on salaries, bonuses, health care coverage and pension payments have direct impact on the city budget – and should be a topic for conversation. How do these benefits stack up against workers in the private sector? How efficient is the current system of individual health plans for each union? Do cities that don’t have union workforces fare any better or worse on key factors like delivery of services?

Why isn’t their more sunlight on this topic? Of course, we know what the real answer is: both sides might lose some leverage as they enact these ancient rites of labor negotiations. But it’s time to ask: have those ancient rites served us or defeated us?

Imagine the alternative: both city and unions being frank and open with what their issues are, with the public fully informed of the issues at hand and what is at stake. (How the public gets informed could include interesting possibilities: a watchdog group who sits in on negotiations, or even (gasp) having them televised.) I’m willing to wager that at the end of the day, the results of this would not differ much from what we have now. We’d just have a more honest sense of how we got there.