Each year, the King County Council heads into the Labor Temple to meet with a massive coalition of union interests that hold contracts with the county. As you may recall, last summer and fall, candidate for King County Executive Susan Hutchison built a platform on de-gilding those employees' so-called "gold plated benefits." She even said to a group of suburban lawmakers, ”I am not beholden to unions in any way."

Which is a pretty stupid approach, considering that the county maintains bargaining contracts with about 60 labor groups, and it doesn't make sense to make them enemies. They represent 10,000 county employees. Yes, they have to take cutbacks to help balance the county's estimated $60 million shortfall next year—perhaps by taking less generous medical benefits or reducing cost of living raises—but the county executive has to bargain with them. A good relationship helps. After all: These groups are extremely well organized and we need the employees to make government work.

Instead of Hutchison, we elected Dow Constantine as the county executive. And this morning, he and the King County Council went to meet with the King County Coalition of Unions for the annual labor summit. Was the executive extremely hostile to the unions? No. And were labor groups unwilling to budge on their contracts? No.

Today the County Coalition of Unions delivered a letter (which appears in full below the jump) that explains they recognize the county's budget woes, which they attribute to limitations on the county's ability to generate tax revenue, "not issues related to the market-based compensation of County employees." Nonetheless, they're ready to negotiate. "We support Executive Constantine's initiative to involve front-line employees in identifying efficiencies and process improvements that save the public money, and we will work with the Executive to review and find ways to implement reasonable suggestions offered by County employees," the letter says.

Constantine has agreed to do two things to massage these negotiations: First, keep the county council in the loop (unlike past executives who have passed down the contract to the council at the last minute), and second, keep the negotiations private (instead of negotiating through a war of press releases and media comments, which can distract from the the central issues of writing a good contract).

Constantine thanked the unions (part of his speech appears after the jump), noting that their commitment marks "an important moment."

This will still be a grueling fight, no doubt, because jobs are on the line. And constituents on both sides (taxpayers who want government to cut the fat and workers who want better pay) will, no doubt, think that their representatives at the bargaining table are giving away too much. But that there is a relationship between the council, executive, and unions to hash out a solution without political bloodshed will, no doubt, be far better than anything we would have gotten out of Susan Hutchison.

Letter from the King County Coalition of Labor Unions:

STATEMENT OF COMMON INTERESTS

May 12, 2010

The King County Coalition of Labor Unions understands the difficult budget situation facing all local governments and respects that changes are necessary to ensure King County's financial stability now and in the future. County employees are devoted public servants who rightly expect to be compensated fairly. In our view, the budget situation faced by King County is the result of the long-standing structural gap facing all counties as a result of voter-limited revenues, not issues related to the market-based compensation of County employees.

Nevertheless, County employees and their unions have a long history of working collaboratively with the County to find short-term solutions to budgetary problems. Most recently the Coalition of Labor Unions agreed to $39 million in savings in the current health care program, and agreed to a 10-day furlough in 2009 that saved taxpayers $8 million. In addition, it's important to remember that $150 million in program cuts have been made over just the last two years, causing many County employees to lose employment and reducing the services provided to the public.

The Coalition of Labor Unions remains committed to working with the Executive and Council over the long term to contain costs and improve efficiencies. We support Executive Constantine's initiative to involve front-line employees in identifying efficiencies and process improvements that save the public money, and we will work with the Executive to review and find ways to implement reasonable suggestions offered by County employees.

We also appreciate the Executive's commitment to a thoughtful, long-term process on collective bargaining, and his stated commitment to bringing specific issues to the bargaining table, rather than attempting to negotiate in public.

We are good faith partners in the success and financial stability of the County, and we look forward to working with the Executive and Council on proposals and changes that secure public services in the most efficient and cost-effective way.

Part of the statement form Dow Constantine:

I want to thank our King County labor partners for their commitment this morning to collaborate with us on working to identify ways to contain costs and identify efficiencies to address our financial issues.

· As I’ve said before, if we are to have a county government that is sustainable, we must create partnerships that help us bring down the cost of government over time.

· I am committed to a methodical, long-term approach that engages all of our employees — managers and front-line staff alike — in a process to arrive at a level of pay and benefits that is fair to employees and fair to taxpayers.

· I deeply appreciate the statement of common interests from our King County labor partners this morning. It’s a significant statement.

o It recognizes that we share the same understanding of our fiscal constraints as we emerge from this recession.

o It recognizes that for us to have a county government that is sustainable over time, changes are necessary.

o And it gives us their commitment to work with us to contain costs and create new efficiencies.

· This is an important moment.

· This sets our starting point — a foundation upon which we can build a relationship of mutual respect and trust with our labor partners.