In governments all across the country, there’s a need to open up collective bargaining to more public scrutiny. Union contracts in particular need to be released to the public before they are ratified. But even when you have the contract in hand, you don’t necessarily know everything you need to know.
The dirty little secret of collective bargaining is it doesn’t take a hiatus between contracts – any new contract still has to be implemented. And sometimes there are little arrangements that occur in the middle of a contract implementation, such as the Memorandum of Understanding that Springfield Police Chief Robert Williams made with Local 5 of the Policemen’s Benevolent Labor Committee last month. Roberts and the union agreed between themselves that police disciplinary reports, which under the existing contract were supposed to remain on file for five years, could be removed and destroyed. The Springfield Journal-Register reported that 30 disciplinary files were destroyed. It appears there was a Freedom of Information Act request on file that called for the production of some of the documents in the destroyed files.
This kind of issue creates problems that go well beyond labor relations. As enforcers of the law, the men and women of the police force have the authority to investigate, arrest and use force – sometimes even deadly force. We expect them to follow the law and the orders set by their superiors, both on the police force and in government itself. The public should be able to rely on police who are disciplined and a police department that can instill that discipline. It’s a tough job, and all of us should recognize the demands; but when an officer breaks the rules it shouldn’t be swept under the rug. The union and the police chief may have colluded to do just that. Even the appearance of such a thing should not be accepted.
The public deserves a government that is accountable and transparent, and nowhere is that more important than in law enforcement. The Illinois Policy Institute has supported legislation that would open tentative contracts up to public review and even proposed allowing the public in on bargaining sessions. But even that isn’t necessarily enough; the entire relationship between unions and government should be as transparent as possible.
Paul Kersey is Director of Labor Policy at the Illinois Policy Institute