Memo to Police Union Reps: Do be careful, please.

Coolidge Police Strike

It was September 1919, and about 80% of the Boston police force went on strike.  Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis denied that the officers had a right to form a union, and he was certain they had no right to form one associated with the  American Federation of Labor.  Calvin Coolidge rode anti-union sentiment all the way to the White House, the Boston officers who had been fired for striking weren’t reinstated until 1931, and it would be two decades after the strike that police would be able to form unions – generally after World War II.

The gains made to protect officers from arbitrary and capricious hiring and firing, to insure their rights in regard to due process, and to bargain wages, hours and working conditions were hard won, and required general public approval to become reality.  Whether the police union representatives like it or not, associations of law enforcement officers are public employee unions, and subject to some of the same dynamics which affect other such organizations.  Ergo, here comes some unsolicited advice.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.  As of now most conservatives are inclined to support the police, and to support their use of lethal force.  [Salon]  As long as the “us versus them” mentality can be associated with communities of color, with poor people, and with those who might advocate for things like increasing the minimum wage, the conservative voices will be pleased to sing the praises of pro-police activities.    As long as the police are keeping such movements as the “99%” Occupy Whatever under control the powers that be will be supportive.

However, there’s a chink in the Kevlar.  The police are fine as long as they don’t ask for “exorbitant” overtime pay, or get negotiated pension benefits which appear “too large.” United Airlines is bristling at the pay for security personnel (police/firefighters) at the Newark airport. [ChAviation] Wages for Port Authority Police are under scrutiny as some veteran officers earn six figure salaries – one example, which is not identified as an outlier, given as $221,000. [NBC

What we don’t know is how much experience (seniority) this officer had, nor do we know the rational for running up all the overtime.  Medical expenses at home?  Several children to send to college?  Home mortgage payments? Yes, that $221,000 sounds “outrageous” when compared to the median income in a Newark household ($33,960)  but not quite so outstanding when compared to the U.S. median of $71,629.  It’s  even less so when we insert the cost of raising children from birth to 18 years of age in the northeast:

“In New Jersey and the rest of the Northeast, the cost is even higher. Families can expect to spend $261,000. After adjusting for inflation over 17 years, that amount grows to just less than $350,000.” [NJ.com]

It appears that some of those who are touting the efforts of police to secure places like bridges and tunnels, the World Trade Center, and other  New York City airports are loathe to pay the overtime negotiated for that protection.

Newspapers in Nevada were publishing overtime stories last year about corrections officers overtime pay [LVSun] and one news outlet placed a discussion of overtime pay framed as a “public trust” issue. [News8]  Once again there were brief mentions of police providing security for special events, and of seniority levels, but it’s hard to miss the point that these negotiated overtime payments might be considered “excessive.”

Rarely can one find articles, such as the one in the Chicago Sun Times which points out that suburban police and fire pension funds in that metropolitan area are “drying up.”  How much national publicity was given to the problems with the pension funds for New Orleans (LA) port police? [NOLA] Examples in California and Detroit made the national scene as cities faced bankruptcy – and it should be noted that the questions were framed as “either the police and other public employees should absorb the cuts so that (1) debts incurred by city governments could be paid off, or (2) tax cuts and loopholes could be maintained, or taxes could be kept lower than necessary to support the negotiated agreements – Did anyone speak to how closing tax loopholes or removing subsidies, or even raising taxes to meet expenses, might solve the problem?

Here again, we find the old canard that the only way to make a city budget balance is to do so on the backs of public employees – never, never on those who benefit from tax incentives, breaks, and subsidies, nor should any bondholders have to take a “hair cut” on ill-advised public projects.   Police spokespersons are gently advised to secure all the support they can, but be aware that the impetus for “transparency” for public employees’ salaries and benefits, and the publicized issues involved in pension benefits are motivated by a desire to play the “public employees at the public trough’” card with conservative voters.

It’s Us vs. Them when money matters.  Remember when teachers were highly regarded?  That would be before they decided that being hired or fired on capricious grounds wasn’t a good thing. Back in the Good Old Days when merit counted for nothing and New York City could shake down teachers for $120 for a job and $175 for a transfer.  {Bettman: The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible}  That would also be before the days when they decided that during a teacher evaluation the principal should actually appear IN the classroom and not conduct “humming bird evaluations” from the corridor.  That would also be before the days when teachers decided that their wages should allow them to pay off student loans for degrees costing about $9,139 per year, and still put food on the table, gas in the car’s tank, and dress “professionally.”

Now “unions” come under fire for “putting the needs of the teacher ahead of the needs of the students” for daring to declare that a salary schedule might need enhancement to meet the financial needs of the teachers in the system.  Once again, the question is framed NOT as how revenue might be generated to pay teachers what they are worth and what they need, but how demands for salary increases are jeopardizing the services the school can provide.  So-called ‘reformers’ come from the woodwork and every other conceivable direction to tell the general public that in order to ‘improve’ education the union must be broken, and teacher paid based on some matrix of quantifiable factors – as if education and schooling were one and the same.

The police unions are perilously close to the edge of the ‘public employees at the trough’ and ‘protectors of the incompetent’ charges when they negotiate wages and benefits.  Once more, when it’s a question of controlling the ‘great unwashed’ the conservatives are supportive, but when it comes to a question of paying for that ‘protection’ the conservatives are willing to slip easily into their Taxpayer Protector mode – not the regular garden variety taxpayer, but the tax benefited, bond holding, variety.

It’s almost guaranteed that when the police negotiators come up against those who want to protect bondholders and tax break benefited interests their status as “public servants” at servants’ wages will be inserted into the public discussion.  One of the banners so often waved in teachers’ faces is the canard that unions protect the incompetent, the extrapolation of this is, of course, do away with the union and the problem will be solved.

Policeman Police Thyself.   There’s a way to defend against the latter charge, but it requires some humility. The boisterous defense of police activities by  union leadership in St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York City, may ring well to the rank and file in the short term; however, it doesn’t take too much effort for the other shoe to drop – a public perception that the union is protecting incompetent officers.  Therefore, it might be recommended that:

Police union leadership should remind the public that the union is protecting the contract, not necessarily the actions of a few officers.  If the master agreement calls for a specific response to matters of suspension, demotion, or dismissal, then the union should insure the due process rights of its membership.  After all, the union is collecting dues, and those dues include defense of the person and the contract provisions.

Perhaps instead of caterwauling about an attack on the police from an uncooperative community, the union representative might want to say, “Officer X is facing some very serious charges, charges which could result in his suspension, demotion, or dismissal, and his union is tasked with defending his due process rights under our master agreement at every step in that process.”

If more comment is deemed necessary, then something like the following could be offered: “Officer X is guaranteed by our contract to have every opportunity to present his defense, and we will help him present it.” (It isn’t necessary for the representative to add in public —  “If he can dream one up.”)

The foregoing hypothetical allows the union to present its case as a defense of the contract provisions – and how many people don’t believe that contracts should be honored? – instead of taking the posture that even the most egregious actions by an individual union member should be fiercely defended in the public domain.

The right of public employees to organize, and to defend their membership was long in the making, and faces some important issues today as the anti-tax, pro-tax break and taxpayer subsidy, mentality holds serve in regard to community services.    The old saw might prove true some day: “Never  permanently antagonize an enemy, some day you might need him.”

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