FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
Remember that old song, "Look for the Union Label?" It was a song created back in 1975 to remind folks to buy clothes made in the USA. Unions have revolutionized the way things are done in the USA, some good, some bad. Without a doubt the introduction of unions in the garment industry transformed the entire labor force from one that was akin to indentured servants, to the modern day worker who now seems spoiled and sometimes unmotivated by anything except money. Workmanship, pride, and other intangibles seem to have disappeared from some factories and plants across the nation. Now it's all about the Benjamins and bigger bennies.
I never envisioned a day when police departments would become unionized. After all, my idea of a union was goons with bats intimidating workers to join, and the union shutting down the business with a strike if their demands were not met. Police departments had fraternal organizations that were much more compassionate about their membership, and went about seeking improved pay and working conditions in a much more subtle, humane manner. Moreover, the notion that police officers would threaten a city with a strike or work slowdown was inconceivable.
Well I guess that I was somewhat naive to think that way because the police have indeed become unionized. To what extent I'm not certain, but the National Association of Police Organizations claims to represent more than 2,000 police unions and associations, 238,000 sworn law enforcement officers, 11,000 retired officers and more than 100,000 citizens who share a common dedication to fair and effective crime control and law enforcement.
So what is the result of this union representation? Has the process improved or eroded the ability of a department to work efficiently to put the bad guys behind bars? The answer is that I'm not sure. I was in Rhode Island last week teaching a class at the Department of Corrections. I had a conversation with Officer John Bray about unions. John is a training instructor, as well as an elected official to the Executive Board of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO). He tells me that since its establishment in 1971, RIBCO has been an agent of change for its membership. Officers have seen better working conditions, wages, benefits, and training as a result of the union's representation. That's the good news. The downside--the officers have been working sans contract for the past five years. Translation--their pay has been frozen along with shift assignments and promotions.
In Vallejo, CA, the city is on the verge of bankruptcy. Police and fire salaries, which are among the highest in the Bay area, comprise about 74% of the city's budget, causing the city to ask for huge concessions from their public servants. Granted the salaries are not the sole reason the city is fiscally insolvent, but the increase in salaries and benefits over the years has no doubt contributed to the city's diminished resources.
Seattle PD is not well paid as some of the other west coast cities. It has been battling the city over issues that continue to grant more citizen oversight and review, to the extent that the PD now spends more time defending itself than the citizens that it has sworn to protect. There seems to be a disproportionate number of complaints about the police. But according to an attorney for the union, only 13% of officers have had complaints lodged against them, with only one in eight resulting in findings of misconduct. In this case the union is the only way the PD can respond with any type of powerful voice.
Officers in Coral Gables, FL have just been paid $138,000 owed them for the past two years. Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 7 President Eugene Gibbons, said that it could have been much larger, but that statute limits the amount of money that can be paid. He said that the city has been shortchanging its officers their shift differential pay for almost 20 years. Without the union, what recourse would the officers have to recoup their losses?
On the other hand, I am aware of problems caused by unions that have filed suits in response to hiring, promotions, and job and shift assignments. Vacancies have lasted years as a result of court battles. Officers have experienced delayed promotions, resulting in loss of time in grade and therefore higher pay rates. Of course the cumulative effect impacts the officers' pensions as well; the monthly amount might well be reduced by a substantial percentage. That's the tangible effect of litigation spawned by police unions. What is much more difficult to see and to quantify is the acrimony it creates. The disharmony that permeates a department, the battle lines that are drawn, the "we-they" mentality that is created, all combine to be sometimes so divisive that healing takes years if at all.
Do we need unions for police? My quick answer is yes. Just as many in society characterize the police themselves as a necessary evil, so also might we use the same characterization for the unions. I consider police officers to be professionals, and as such they need to be compensated in an appropriate manner. However, many of those in city administrations do not have the same perception and that mindset is sometimes reflected in low wages and bare minimum benefits. The only word of caution is that we must ensure that the unions don't wield too much power. For an example of what happens when unions become an unstoppable juggernaut, one only need look at the auto industry in Detroit. I'll quit while I'm ahead.
Stay safe, brothers and sisters!