In October 2013, the Monarch Fire Protection District implemented a new approach to collective bargaining with the union representing rank-and-file firefighters. Rather than hold meetings on pay, benefits, time off, and work rules behind closed doors, the board of the fire district decided to make these meetings open to the public.
With open collective bargaining, any citizen, journalist, or Monarch employee interested in the process could show up to a meeting and see the demands made by the union and the board. In theory, this process would keep demands in check, tactics civil, and allow the public to see how government decisions are made.
One might think that a more transparent process for determining how a government entity delivers services and spends taxpayer money would be welcomed by all; however, it appears that the union did not like the arrangement.
“The union lawyer tried stunts to close the meetings to the public,” says Jane Cunningham, one of three members of the fire district board.
According to Cunningham, when collective bargaining was held behind closed doors, it was easy for the union to get whatever terms they wanted in the contract. In essence, the union was able to exert complete control over the fire district because it had majority control of the board and could collectively bargain without public scrutiny.
No one would suggest that private-sector collective bargaining should occur in public forums. That’s because the terms and conditions of private employment are, well, private. But the public has an interest in what public employees are paid, both because taxpayers are picking up the tab and because the right balance of compensation is important to getting good service without being overcharged.
Now that open collective bargaining is in place at Monarch, it appears that the union is no longer getting exactly what it wants in collective negotiations, and community interests are being better served.
Will other government entities open their collective bargaining negotiations? Only time will tell. For now it appears that Monarch is taking a step in the right direction with this innovative approach to government transparency.
At the time this story went to print, the firefighters union had not responded to our request for comments.