Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Police unions finding renewed opposition after years of bipartisan kowtowing

In a local story from the Valley about a change of leadership at the police union in the McAllen police department ("Police officers union to move forward under new leadership," Jan. 7), I was interested to see a reference to the union's losses in their recent contract negotiations. Reported the McAllen Monitor:
Sgt. Joe Garcia, the union’s president since 2009, will be replaced by his vice president, Officer David Alvarado.

They helped negotiate the union’s four-year collective bargaining agreement, which runs until Sept. 30, 2015.

The agreement, inked July 18 after negotiations failed and the union unsuccessfully sued McAllen, was widely seen as a victory for City Hall.

“One thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to pick your fights with the city,” Garcia said, referencing the contentious negotiations.

The contract phased out a health insurance subsidy for some retired officers and eliminated a union information session for police cadets, an important recruiting opportunity. Union officials had pushed for an across-the-board raise and permission to work security at downtown bars while off duty, but city officials rejected those proposals.

With the contract behind them, Garcia decided to step down, and Alvarado ran unopposed to succeed him. Alvarado will be officially sworn in later this month.

While the union doesn’t attract much attention when there isn’t a contract to be negotiated, it’s a major player within the Rio Grande Valley’s largest police department, which has 275 certified police positions. The union’s contract sets pay and benefits, and the union provides work-related legal services to members.
In the wake of the contract losses, the new union president "said he wants to build closer ties between the police union and the public, in part to improve the image of public employee unions, which have been under attack nationwide." McAllen snubbing the union in contract negotiations is a notable contrast to the way elected officials from both parties in recent years have kowtowed to police unions in larger cities. Being a "right to work" state, Texas has few strong unions anymore in the private sector and our public-sector unions are incredibly weak compared to those in other large states. (E.g., our prison guards are virtually unorganized and unconsidered compared to their powerhouse counterparts in California.) As a result, police unions in Texas elections often are the only union interest with significant political muscle, money to spend, etc..

These unions - particularly those under the CLEAT umbrella - historically in Texas have tended to garner bipartisan fealty among politicians at all levels. I understand why Democrats strongly support unions; less so why Rick Perry does, except to associate himself generally with law enforcement. In Austin, then-Mayor Kirk Watson's extravagant handouts to the police union were the driver for a decade and counting of continuous property-tax growth since the turn of the century, with more of the same projected in the foreseeable future. From the 30,000 foot level, there's a growing resistance by taxpayers to paying - usually through local property tax hikes - for the kind of lucrative pay and benefit packages they themselves lost to corporate restructuring and the recession.

Like the new McAllen police-union president, ever since the budget fights in Wisconsin Grits has been wondering if and when anti-public employee sentiment within the conservative movement might bubble up as feuding with local police associations. To hear CLEAT Executive Director John Burpo tell it, the fight is already here, and the barbarians are at the gates:
A little background is in order. From the 1960’s to just a few years ago, law enforcement pensions were improved significantly and then maintained. Law enforcement officers and their unions advanced and state legislators pushed the proposition that policing is a tough, dangerous job that deserves decent retirement benefits greater than other public employees.

Unfortunately, private sector unions have declined significantly over the last 20 years, and with that decline there has been an attendant decline in private sector defined pension benefits. The majority of private sector employees no longer have retirement plans – they are now fortunate to even have a 401(k) and a meager contribution by the employer. Sadly, most folks in the law enforcement world did not pay attention to this development because it was their problem, not ours.

In the past 2 years public sector pension plans have come under attack, including law enforcement retirements. These attacks have taken place in other states so once again, it was their problem and Texas law enforcement officers didn’t worry.

But it is definitely now our problem as antiretirement forces are on the march right here in Texas. A cabal of anti-union, anti-public employee businessmen out of Houston are leading the charge to take away your long held and much deserved retirement rights. This cabal doesn’t care that each one of you lays your life on the line every day; or that the Memorial Wall on the State Capitol grounds is filled with the names of heroic law enforcement officers who have sacrificed their lives protecting Texas citizens.

CLEAT will lead the fight to take on these Forces of Darkness. We have a battle plan that is eloquently outlined in Todd Harrison’s article on page 2 of this edition of The Police Star (pdf). Please take the time to read this important article so that you understand what we will be doing over the course of the next 2 years.
I find Burpo's language wonderfully hyperbolic, if sadly typical of much internal police-union rhetoric: Anyone with a different opinion on something they care about is generally considered by CLEAT to be part of the "Forces of Darkness," which in this case includes a "cabal of anti-union, anti-public employee businessmen out of Houston." Who knew? A shadowy cabal! Throw in a few references to the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group and he could write for Alex Jones.

The schtick about dangerous jobs will only get them so far when garbage collectors, whose jobs are statistically far more dangerous, are paid much less and get no comparable memorial on the capitol grounds. (In 2009, according to the most recent Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (pdf), "refuse and recyclable materials collectors" died on the job at a rate of 26.5 per 100,000, compared to 12.9 for "Police and Sheriff's patrol officers.")

CLEAT's plan includes backing electoral opponents to run against incumbents who support restructuring retirement benefits (through their PAC), extensive polling to craft messages that will sell with the public, creating a "Truth Squad" to quickly attack critics who question the viability of large police pensions, fundraising for their PAC (surprise, surprise!), and engaging union locals in their message delivery. The plan, or at least its public, fundraising-letter version, notably does not contemplate any path to compromise on the kinds of issues (ethics, accountability, public information) that might demonstrate the union's commitment to the sort of professionalism expected of government workers who make more money and have better pensions than the average voter. Instead, the plan is to attack anyone who questions them.

In McAllen, the city manager said part of the union's trouble was a simlar us-against-the-world mentality:
City Manager Mike Perez said the relationship between the police union and city leaders has been “rough at best.”

“I think the approach they take is: City Hall is the enemy,” Perez said. “The fact that they’ve gotten involved in politics and supported candidates hasn’t helped the relationship.”

Perez said he’s heard second- and third-hand reports that officers thought Garcia wasn’t tough enough on City Hall, and backed Alvarado because he’d take a harder stance.
When the GOP took over Texas state politics, police-union interests never missed a beat and continued to wield significant power, thanks in large part to their influence with Rick Perry and the advisers surrounding him (as well as a few, key, senior legislators, many of whom have now departed). Will that continue to be the case as a radicalized GOP base sends more Tea-Party types - Burpo's "Forces of Darkness" - to the legislature and city councils? Or will the police unions, perhaps for the first time in a generation, finally be forced to learn the art of compromise, both at the capitol and at city hall? Time will tell.


The Comedian said...

Heaven forfend anyone should have a better retirement plan than those who lost theirs during the Goldman Sachs, BOA, sponsored economic meltdown.

The irony is that the police tend to support the 1% over the 99% so I really have no sympathy for them.

Prison Doc said...

I would like to think that these changes are due to the public finally waking up to police and prosecutorial excesses but that is probably wishful thinking on my part. Coming from a law enforcement family I was pretty slow to wake up too but one unpleasant encounter with a rogue agency can be amazingly clarifying...leaving no doubt as where the "Dark Side" really is!

Anonymous said...

Locally, Harris County deputies saw a cut in retirement benefits recently as the county lowered the percentage it paid into their accounts. HPD is infamous in law enforcement circles for having lost significant pension benefits 8 years ago, the officers hired since then getting a lower percent, paying more, and not getting the health care supplement check as well as the loss of their DROP program. That they do not even vest until reaching a minimum of 55 years of age is telling too but I suspect other agencies around the state will follow suit within a few years.

Anonymous said...

Texas is a right to work state. unions of any kind are impotent, especially in law enforcement and government work.

Welcome to the salt mines, grad a shovel and dig.