This Colorado Ballot Measure Finally Brought Transparency To The State’s Unions

Though the biggest story in last month’s election was the Republican takeover of Congress, progress at the state level is another important emerging narrative. By an impressive 70 percent, Colorado voters brought sunshine to government through overwhelmingly approving a ballot measure that will move negotiations for employment contracts with public school employee unions into the public square.

This important step helps to ensure accountability in an era when private-sector jobs lag behind public sector compensation packages. Since many public-sector teaching jobs nationwide often include provisions that make it difficult to remove ineffective teachers, this process is vital for the future of Colorado’s students.

Though the Colorado initiative, Proposition 104, was offered by a conservative think tank called Independence Institute, it won the backing of the liberal Denver Post, which cited Independence Institute’s president Jon Caldara.

“The most important thing [school boards] do is negotiate this contract,” Caldara told the Post. “It is 85 percent of the budget in most school districts.”

“State and local government employees make nearly 43 percent more per hour on average than private sector workers.”

What makes Proposition 104 a bit more unique than other states is that in Colorado, the talks must be open to the public, whereas in some other states it is optional. The Goldwater Institute points out that 11 states force negotiations to be secret altogether.

“When total secrecy in negotiations is combined with laws forcing government employers to engage in collective bargaining — often euphemistically called ‘meet and confer’ — government unions are free to deploy maximum leverage in negotiations —consisting of political pressure and monopoly power — while hiding from any meaningful oversight,” Goldwater scholars report. “It is no wonder that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has most recently reported that state and local government employees make nearly 43 percent more per hour on average in total compensation than private sector workers.”

This fact is confirmed by the Congressional Budget Office, which reports that after combined pension, healthcare and other benefits, a government worker makes more than the average private sector worker. When workers take money at a higher average than the taxpayers who hire them, it seems only reasonable that they should be accountable to their bosses – the voters.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, statewide the average teacher salary in 2011 was $49,046, considerably higher than the state’s per capita income of $31,109 (and national per capita of $28,155).

In a twist of irony, the Goldwater Institute reported that during the 1970s, government unions and employees often sought to require collective bargaining to be transparent and subject to open meetings laws. At that time, government unions were reportedly less powerful due to their newly-formed status. Interestingly, courts would often rule that transparency would unfairly favor the union side in negotiations and disrupt the tactics that could be successfully deployed by government employers in negotiations to reach resolutions of labor disputes.

For example, Goldwater reports that under Bassett v. Dade County Classroom Teachers’ Association the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that public negotiations would generate “an imbalance in bargaining power” if unions got wind of government negotiation tactics. The judges also worried that opening up the process could create political “grandstanding” exploited by union leaders.

With public sector unions now more powerful, Colorado’s voters made clear through Proposition 104 that they want to help mitigate power asymmetry in today’s current negotiating environment. The Colorado reform doesn’t go as far as Scott Walker’s epic public sector union battle (after which he was able to turn a $3.6 billion state budget deficit into a more than half-billion dollar surplus) over Wisconsin Act 10, that helped school districts save millions of taxpayer dollars on public sector workers’ generous compensation packages and required workers to pay their fair share into their retirements, just like private workers. However, Colorado’s Proposition 104 could heighten awareness of teachers’ negotiating tactics and better ensure that the state’s education system is first meant to serve students rather than pay adults.

Goldwater scholars quip: “Although union groups and their political allies have opposed collective bargaining transparency as ‘union busting,’ it is difficult to see how shining a light on the bargaining table will “bust” unions unless they have something to hide.”