How does collective bargaining work?

An article in today’s TNT about the City of Lakewood’s employees considering de-certification of its largest union made me realize there are some misconceptions about collective bargaining in government that I could help explain a bit.

This quote from a police officer particularly caught my attention:

“I’m not opposed to unions,” said Rick Wade, property and evidence supervisor at the Lakewood Police Department. “I personally don’t feel I need a union. I can do my own representation. Why am I going to pay someone $50 a month to represent me when I don’t want them to?”

The reality is that quite a few cities don’t have unions, Gig Harbor included.  However, we still bargain with employees collectively through their guilds.  The difference is that unlike guilds, unions have affiliated with a larger outside organization, usually national.

It’s great that Lakewood has good enough employee relations that they feel comfortable negotiating without outside support, but that should not be confused with every employee going it on their own.  In fact it would be very difficult for a city to operate that way.

Why?  A few reasons.

Public Benefit

Unlike private enterprise, government is owned by the people and governed by their representatives.  It is up to these elected officials, myself included, to make personnel policy including salary range, benefits, time off, schedules, etc.  We are required by law to bargain these issues.  The administration, led by Mayor Hunter in our case, makes individual agreements within those terms.  To give an example, when a position for planner is open he advertises the job and selects the best fit, then presents an offer based on the terms of the CBA.

As much as I enjoy spending time with our employees, time restraints and cost keep us from bargaining with each one individually for those terms.  In other words, collective bargaining is a benefit to the taxpayers.


Second, and this is an important one, collective bargaining ensures a uniform standard of treatment for employees.  There is nothing more toxic in a working environment then special treatment, positive or negative.  Let’s say that one employee of equal stature is allowed to flex their schedule but another is not, without an agreement that sets the rules for flex time, there can be conflicts.  The result could be losing a good employee, or worse, running afoul of fair labor standards.  Unfortunately that’s a very simple example and in employment law, there are many more issues that must be agreed upon.


Finally and this is critical from a due process standpoint, the guilds represent their members in the case of disciplinary action.  While this is often viewed to be a negative thing, like public defenders, it’s necessary.  These situations are exceedingly rare, at least in GH, and thankfully the cases of wronful discipline still rarer.  But there are grey areas and at least one case I can think of where the guild helped the process work as it should.

I applaud this officer for believing that he can go it on his own and my guess is that he’s a highly responsible public servant.  However, if he ever had to use his firearm in a murky situation, I guarantee he will be glad to have support whether it’s from a union or a local guild.  Hopefully that day never comes.

And if we haven’t said it enough, the context of talking about Lakewood police can’t be left without mentioning again the four officers who were murdered last year.  It’s easy for the rest of us to forget until something awful happens that while we run away from danger, these men and women run towards it.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RR Anderson, Derek Young. Derek Young said: Collective bargaining in government. [...]

  2. RR Anderson says:

    Did you happen to catch ‘this American life’ ? I wonder how the guilds/unions helped or hurt Officer Adrian Schoolcraft. Now that guy is ‘going it alone’

    1. admin says:

      No. Which is surprising since I tend to listen (though it’s often background noise). For the most part I think people just don’t think it through. But in fairness, it’s also possible that his quote was truncated and he meant they didn’t need help from outside the city which I think is fair. It seemed like the reporter either didn’t understand that disbanding a union doesn’t end CBAs so he may have misinterpreted a broader statement. Just thought it brought up a question that I’ve been asked a few times before.

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