By Diane Cohen, Liberty Justice Center -
When the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in September, taxpayers were locked out of the bargaining room as union and school officials negotiated double-digit raises and more generous perks for teachers. In the end, Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to a contract that spends money the city does not have.
Most people assumed these closed-door meetings were the normal course of events and probably did not think twice about them.
But there was no reason for taxpayers and media to be shut out of these talks. First of all, it is our children, along with taxpayer money, at stake. Second, the law doesn't require negotiations with government unions to be closed; government officials are deliberately choosing to close them.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act requires that citizens receive advance notice and have the right to be present when public bodies — such as city councils and school boards — meet to conduct business. Though the law exempts specified meetings from this requirement, these exemptions are optional and mostly involve public safety or privacy concerns.
But the exemption allowing closed meetings for collective bargaining negotiations doesn't serve a public interest.
Despite this provision, the Illinois Labor Relations Act and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act exempt collective bargaining from the Open Meetings Act. It is unclear why, but the bottom line remains that the labor acts do not require negotiations to be closed, either.
Thinking back to the CTU strike, taxpayers should ask why the public and the press were barred from attending the contract negotiations leading up to and during the strike. With the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars on the line and the future of more than 400,000 students at stake, taxpayers and parents should have been a part of the process.
If the negotiations were open to the public, we would have learned firsthand — and a lot sooner — that the strike was illegal. Instead, it was not until week two of the strike, when the city finally went to court to try to end it, that we learned that the union went on strike over permissive (as opposed to mandatory) subjects of bargaining, including layoff and recall rights, class size, staffing and assignment. According to Illinois law, these subjects are required to be resolved via dispute resolution, not a strike. Had citizens been allowed in the negotiation room, perhaps they could have made a difference by demanding the mayor take faster legal action and exposing the union for its illegal tactics.
Currently, AFSCME, the state's largest government union, is negotiating a new contract for the more than 40,000 state workers it represents. Once again, taxpayers are locked out of the room. The same can be said for labor conflicts spreading throughout the state now that the unions have been emboldened by CTU's example.
Citizens should have a seat in the room when state and local government negotiates with taxpayer money. AFSCME negotiations are a good place to start. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn should hold negotiating sessions in public. Accountability, transparency and the basic right to know how our tax dollars are being spent are reasons enough not only to open contract negotiations to the citizens — as the law currently allows — but also to amend the law to require it.
Until the open meetings and labor acts are amended to require open meetings for collective bargaining, call on your state and local officials, as well as the unions, and demand a seat in the room. If they say no, ask them what they have to hide.