10:48 PM PDT on Sunday, May 15, 2011

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

One of Riverside County’s largest employee unions allows any member to attend contract talks, raising concerns in recent weeks from at least two supervisors that the open-door policy isn’t productive.

Typically, collective bargaining is conducted between small negotiating teams behind closed doors and the supervisors discuss ongoing labor issues in their confidential sessions.

But Service Employees International Union Local 721 has invited all of its members to attend the talks, held as often as twice weekly.

Supervisors Bob Buster and John Tavaglione have questioned the policy.

“If they open it up to all of their represented employees, isn’t that also inviting anyone to come to collective-bargaining sessions, the public, the press?” Buster asked at last week’s board meeting.

During a lengthy debate last month about what supervisors should say publicly about labor talks, Tavaglione said he supported working with the unions and through collective bargaining. But he expressed concern over SEIU’s policy.

“SEIU has an open forum where employees can just walk in and out. … That’s not productive to fair negotiations,” Tavaglione said at the April 26 meeting. “I made that clear to SEIU.”

Wendy Thomas, a county employee and SEIU’s chief labor negotiator, said Friday that the union has long opened the sessions to members.

“We have always had our members present. We are just a transparent organization,” Thomas said in a telephone interview. “It allows the membership to come in and understand what is going on. They are the stakeholders.”

STATE LAW SILENT

At last week’s board meeting, Buster requested a report on the matter.

In that report, which will go to the supervisors Tuesday, County Counsel Pamela Walls said including employees in contract talks does not mean the sessions must be open to the public.

The Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law, is silent on whether collective bargaining sessions are open or private, Walls wrote.

The negotiating sessions typically are held in private so both sides can freely discuss the issues, Walls wrote.

“In some cases, it can be considered an unfair labor practice to unilaterally permit outside participation in negotiations,” Walls wrote, citing a 1953 case before the National Labor Relations Board.

County Human Resources Director Barbara Olivier told supervisors last week that SEIU doesn’t check to see who attends.

On one occasion, someone from another union showed up, she said.

“We stopped the session,” Olivier said.

Thomas said she has been involved in every round of contract talks as SEIU’s chief negotiator, and Olivier’s statement is false.

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