Originally published Friday, October 14, 2011 at 3:50 PM

Binding arbitration is a relic of better economic times

Binding arbitration in public-employee contracts assumes an ability to pay that does not exist, and it crowds to the head of the line for use of tax funds. End the rigged game of binding arbitration.

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IN difficult economic times no one can afford the luxury of business as usual. As government at all levels is forced to cut back, the use of binding arbitration in public-employee labor contracts must end.

Taxpayers can no longer indulge a process that hands control of public dollars to a third party, grabs scarce resources from others and exonerates elected officials of any accountability for gilded outcomes.

Covering personnel expenses — wages and benefits — is the largest budget item for any city hall, county courthouse or fire district. Imposing compulsory binding arbitration into that labor process artificially inflates the bill for government — taxpayers — regardless of economic conditions.

Washington law prohibits state and local public employees from striking, a position affirmed as recently as 2006 in a legal opinion by Attorney General Rob McKenna.

An accommodation was sliced out three decades earlier to provide access to binding arbitration for police, sheriffs' deputies, firefighters, corrections officers and emergency medical personnel. Transit workers can also get stirred into the mix out of deference to federal grant requirements.

As eligible unions and governments bargain, the threat of binding arbitration hangs over any potential impasse. Arbitration is lengthy, and the costs associated with preparation and hiring special counsel are huge.

Too often, a split-the-difference outcome is a predictable result. If workers want a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment, and employers offer zero, the arbitrator might settle on 1.5 percent, regardless of the local capacity to afford anything — for years.

Last session in Olympia, the Association of Washington Cities promoted a bill to have arbitrators weigh the ability to pay, have uniform qualifications and training, and knowledge of the region. It all went nowhere.

End binding arbitration. Take detached third parties out of local budget decisions. Accountability belongs with officials where taxpayers live and vote.


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