The Washington Post

Where the sun don’t shine

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Scott Walker’s law curbing collective bargaining for public employees in that state, overruling a county judge in Madison, MaryAnn Sumi, who had struck it down because the public was not properly notified of the legislative committee session in which Republicans moved it toward final passage. To Judge Sumi, this constituted a violation of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, whose “purpose … is to protect all citizens’ rights to be informed to the fullest extent concerning the affairs of their government. Transparency in government is most important when the stakes are high.” Not surprisingly, the Republican-majority state high court disagreed.

Also unsurprisingly, the state Democratic Party and the Wisconsin labor movement denounced the ruling as passionately as they had applauded Judge Sumi’s now-reversed decision. State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt called the Supreme Court decision a victory for “shady, backroom tactics.”

And even less surprisingly, I’m unmoved by the sanctimony from labor unions and their supporters on this point. You see, Wisconsin’s Open Meetings law contains a very important exception: it doesn’t apply to public-sector labor negotiations. They are closed to the public. Sure, meetings between unions and elected officials may determine how much taxpayers will have to shell out for public services. But the law “explicitly excludes governmental bodies that are formed for, or meeting for, the purpose of collective bargaining with municipal or state employees,” according to a compliance manual published by Wisconsin’s attorney general.

No doubt the Wisconsin legislature had its reasons for permitting this particular bit of sausage-making to proceed in the dark. By its very nature, collective bargaining is best done behind closed doors; when an AFL-CIO leader talks about “backroom tactics,” you can be sure he’s been in a few himself. That presents no problem in the private sector. But the need to bargain privately is just one more reason that public-sector unionism is inherently inconsistent with genuinely transparent, democratic governance.

How ironic that Judge Sumi would mount her high horse and proclaim “that transparency in government is most important when the stakes are high” — in defense of a process that is itself antithetical to openness and public participation. 

Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, federal fiscal issues and business, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog.


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