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Mike Force

This is the first installment of a new, irregular series called Can They Really Do That? Follow along as Stranger reporters (mostly Heidi Groover) pick apart the ins and outs of policy proposals. We'll look at the background and stakeholders behind Seattle politicians' biggest ideas. Finally, we'll look at whether they'd fly under city, state and federal law.

This week, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) offered its latest rebuke to an attempt by the City of Seattle to push forward on accountability reforms stalled by labor negotiations.

The union, which represents more than 1,300 sworn officers, filed a complaint claiming Mayor Ed Murray violated state bargaining law by issuing an executive order forcing city officers to wear body cameras.

In a statement to media, SPOG president Kevin Stuckey refuted a claim from Murray that negotiators went “around and around trying to reach an agreement” on the city’s body camera policy. He asserted that representatives from the city and the union only met once since the police department launched a pilot camera program in 2016.

It’s difficult to verify Stuckey’s claim because few people are clued into what happens at the negotiating table. Like most other unions shops, SPOG does its deal making with the city in secret.

What we do know about SPOG’s negotiations, we know from leaks. For instance, unnamed sources told Seattle Times reporter Steve Miletich the union is pushing to increase pay for officers who wear the devices by 1.5 percent.

Last year, someone leaked to former Stranger writer Ansel Herz a summary of the contract proposal that was ultimately rejected by SPOG’s membership.

That leak prompted a debate over whether there should be more openness surrounding police union negotiations. The issue resurfaced this election season, with multiple candidates for local office (namely, Jon Grant) calling for some daylighting over the process.

What does “opening” negotiations mean? Who wants it? Why do they want it? Can they even do that? Read on. (Shortcut to answers to that last question.)


THE ISSUE

This debate pits two tenets of progressive politics against one another: Efforts to hold police accountable for misconduct and the right of collective bargaining units to negotiate in good faith. Before we get into what our public officials think, let’s take a moment to break down these ideas.

To understand why police reform advocates have recently trained their eyes on labor contracts, it’s critical to understand the historic role police unions have played in resisting change for the better. Since the Civil Rights Movement, unions across the country have opposed numerous efforts to hold cops accountable.

SPOG is no exception. In the early 1970s, SPOG pushed back against the Human Rights Commission after the panel convened police misconduct hearings. During the '80s, SPOG leadership regularly blasted then-police chief Patrick Fitzsimons for doling out tough discipline and promoting too many women and minorities. In the '90s, SPOG resisted racial sensitivity training.

SPOG’s opposition to reform has become more explicit since the turn of the decade, as a rash of misconduct cases led to the Seattle Police Department’s 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice. An editorial published in the Guardian, SPOG’s official newspaper, defended officers’ right to use the words “n***r” (sic) and “bitch.” Another described the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative as “an assault on traditional and constitutional American values.”

All the while, SPOG dealmakers secured contracts chockfull of provisions protecting officers who beat, shoot, and harass civilians.

Right around when SPOG’s last contract expired in 2014, the rise of Black Lives Matter generated unprecedented public interest in police unions. Earlier this year, Reuters published an investigation detailing a “pattern of protections afforded officers” in contracts nationwide. Campaign Zero, a police accountability group formed in the wake of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, highlighted six common provisions deemed “problematic.” Seattle’s contract contained language covering all six bases.

Among them: Investigators getting 180 days to complete a review before a complaint gets disqualified. Guaranteed five days’ notice before misconduct interviews. Expungement of reprimands and investigatory files after three years.

Since SPOG has yet to adopt a new contract, the union is still operating under the terms of its last agreement with the city, which means it's still working under the provisions highlighted by Campaign Zero as barriers to accountability.

With that context in mind, let’s move onto the second principle at the core of this debate: Good faith collective bargaining, a state mandate that parties involved in union negotiations must come to the table with a willingness to reach an agreement.

It has long been understood that maintaining confidentiality in public sector union negotiations helps ensure good faith bargaining. Deals require candor. Opening contract hearings, the argument goes, would invite political influence that could impede the ability of negotiators to speak frankly and pave the way for grandstanding.

“You’ll have both sides giving talking points and talking to their base. You’ll have canned speeches. The city is going to be banging the table demanding this. The union will be banging the table demanding that,” said Adam Glickman, Secretary Treasurer for Service Employees International Union 775, one of the biggest and most influential unions in Washington.

Labor unions, including those supporting police reform, say any amount of daylight could lead to a slippery slope that threatens the sacrosanct right collective bargaining units to negotiate in good faith.

The bulk of police union negotiations concern typical labor matters like wages, vacation time, and health benefits. But unlike other public sector unions—say, teachers, firefighters or janitors—employees represented by SPOG are authorized to carry guns and handle civilians in ways that would get anyone else fired.

With that extraordinary authority comes the need for policies to protect Seattleites from abuse and unnecessary force. But as we mentioned earlier, SPOG has historically ramrodded through rules that help officers avoid accountability. Because of this, some advocates say the city should specifically open aspects of the negotiations that deal with accountability.


THE POSITIONS

City Council Candidate Jon Grant, perhaps the most vocal supporter of opening union contracts, emphasizes that he only wants to publicize negotiations as they pertain to discipline and accountability. His position comes out of a belief that accountability shouldn’t be negotiable in the first place.

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Grant says he’d like to prevent scenarios where accountability measures become contingent on pay increases, like the current body cam dustup. He also raised a hypothetical scenario in which the council would attempt to give the community police commission the ability to fire the police chief, a power granted to Oakland's police oversight group: “For example, I don't think the union should be able negotiate in private over authorizing the Community Policing Commission to fire the police chief in exchange for a bump in their wages.” That, Grant says, isn't something the union should be able to hold hostage for a pay bump.

When asked exactly what part of the negotiations should be open, Grant said the public should see the opening positions of both parties, as well as “meeting notes, status updates, and related documents.”

Grant’s primary opponent, Washington Labor Council political and strategic campaign director Teresa Mosqueda, opposes opening police negotiations to the public because doing so would “erode the very essence of what makes negotiations possible.”

To increase public input in the process, Mosqueda instead proposes assigning a civilian liaison to sit at the negotiating table. “This can be done, and it’s a real and productive way to create a more transparent and accountable process that will result in a contract,” she said.

Mosqueda notes that Freedom Foundation, the Olympia-based, anti-union think tank, would welcome any attempt to open union negotiations, including a narrow carve out for police discipline.

She’s right. “We would support anything that moves the ball forward on bringing greater transparency to public-sector collective bargaining negotiations,” said Maxford Nelson, director of labor policy for the organization. “Ideally, though, the entire negotiation process should be open to public observation.”

Nelson implied flipping the switch on police negotiations would be a good sign for his organization’s effort to chip away at labor rights. “If we open only the part of contract negotiations that Black Lives Matter activists care about, for instance, why can’t we open up the part of negotiations that taxpayers care about? Or union members? Or journalists?”

The Community Police Commission, the civilian advisory group formed as part of the consent decree, has repeatedly called for the city to publicize its opening negotiating position before going to the table. “Show where the city started and see what we have at the end,” explained Lisa Daugaard, Director of the Public Defender Association and a member of the CPC. “We can see who screwed up.”

Of the six major candidates for mayor, former mayor Mike McGinn stands alone on daylighting police union negotiations. He supports publicizing opening positions of both parties, as well as forcing everyone to show their hands whenever they reach an impasse that triggers mediation, or the next step, arbitration. When asked about concerns that more daylight on union deal making could lead to grandstanding, McGinn pointed to last year’s leak to The Stranger. “There is already grandstanding,” he said. “Secrecy breeds mistrust.”

Even the candidate most focused on police reform, Nikkita Oliver, stops short of saying negotiations should be open. During an endorsement meeting last month, she told The Stranger, "Daylighting is a slippery slope." (Oliver flip-flopped on this position. When we first asked her whether negotiations should stay closed, she said no. She says her views evolved after speaking with "a coalition of city unions.")

City attorney Pete Holmes, who is running for re-election in November, did not commit either way in his answer. “I’m trying very hard to stay in my lane,” he told The Stranger. “I don’t enact ordinances, and I’m not the party that negotiate with the unions.” (This is a flip-flop from his previous position. Last year, he told Herz, “I have supported and advocated opening up SPD's bargaining process with SPOG for the last several years.”)

His opponent, Scott Lindsay, opposes any daylighting. “Simply by saying that these negotiations should happen in public doesn’t achieve the result we want, which is a wholly new contract. In fact, it’s more likely to mean empty grandstanding that puts us into arbitration,” he said.

SPOG did not respond to multiple requests from The Stranger for comment.


SO, CAN THEY REALLY OPEN POLICE UNION NEGOTIATIONS?

Doesn’t look like it.

Washington’s Open Meetings Act, the law that requires governing bodies like the city council and housing authority to conduct business in public, specifically exempts public sector union negotiations.

Marty Garfinkel, a Seattle-based labor lawyer with Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, says the exemption clearly shows local jurisdictions can’t force unions to conduct meetings in public.

Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington who has taught public sector labor law, also points to the Open Meetings Act to make the determination that “there is no legal requirement that the negotiations be public.”

Last year, city attorney Holmes said state law can’t prevent the city council from passing an ordinance that would “open” the negotiations. Over the phone last week, Holmes amended that position, saying he “misstated” the law.

“Either side can request open bargaining, but neither side can require it,” Holmes explained. In his interpretation of the law, publicizing the negotiations would require consent from both sides. That means both the city and SPOG would have to voluntarily open up the negotiations and that looks unlikely.

Finally, what about putting some daylight on the pre-negotiations process? We're talking about the list of objectives drafted by the city and SPOG before enter the back room. Could those be made public?

It’s standard practice for the council to hold public hearings before negotiations kick off. Council members then publish a resolution outlining what members of the public voiced during the hearing. Council Member Lisa Herbold is currently working on a proposal that would make that practice a requirement.

Publishing a record of public comments, however, is not the same as publicizing exactly what the city is asking for as it heads to the table with SPOG. That would require public officials to go on the record about their objectives.

When asked whether she would introduce legislation that would open the city’s list of negotiating objectives, Herbold was noncommittal, saying she wants to "hear directly from labor stakeholders."