Collective Bargaining in Public Safety: What’s all the fuss about?

My friends and family know that I am extremely conservative in my political views. So I have had multiple opportunities to explain why I support collective bargaining for LEOs. Given the current environment and media coverage, I thought it was appropriate to explain my position.

What is collective bargaining? Simply put, it is a procedure that allows a group of authorized individuals to negotiate on behalf of a group. The subject of the negotiations most often involve the conditions and benefits of employment. Although much is being made right now about the benefits side, the conditions of employment are equally important. As a lawyer, the most important conditions for me include due process rights,  discipline issues and the defense of LEOs when they use deadly force. However, the benefits side of the equation is also important to me. I have represented several officers who suffered life changing and career ending injuries on duty. For many, that is the first time they realized how small the disability benefits will be. Another benefit issue is equipment. If you think this is not a big issue, there are LEOs going to work in 2011 who are not issued bullet proof vests. That is unacceptable to me, and I surmise the general public feels the same way. On a side note, the FOP will buy those officers vests with donations from the public.

It is important to address a few facts that are being neglected or intentionally distorted. First, LEOs overwhelming do not want to engage in any type of action that will hurt the public. In fact, the FOP bargaining units will not sign any contract that allows, condones or permits a work slow down or strike. The reason? They are sworn LEOs and they only represent LEOs. Second, collective bargaining is not all about salaries and pensions as stated above. Third, and most important, thousands of LEOs go to work every day with little or any due process rights to protect them from bad politics, nepotism or the whims of agency leadership. They are not only at-will employees, many also have no way to address clearly improper decisions. In short, if they are improperly disciplined or fired, they have no legal recourse unless the employment action violates state or federal law.

So why should LEOs have rights that private sector employees do not have? Consider these points.

  • As to pensions benefits, LEOs do not live as long after retirement as the private sector. Stress is a powerful and destructive force. LEOs have about a 20 – 25 year “effective work life.” Increasing the retirement age is really not an option for LEOs. When you call 911, do you have an expectation of the age and fitness level of the LEO who will arrive to help protect you?
  • As to disability benefits, LEOs drive in high risk situations on a daily basis, they get injured much more frequently in the course of their jobs, and they have a much higher risk of disability than people working in the private sector. Imagine trying to buy an individual disability policy from a private insurance company. Can you imagine that application? “I drive at high speeds above the posted speed limit on a regular basis, I attend high risk training with firearms and physical confrontation techniques, I wear a gun to make sure I have a chance to come home alive and if the rest of the world is running away from a threat like an active shooter, I run toward the threat.” There are probably not a bunch of insurance underwriters looking to write that policy.
  • As to reductions in force, taking a LEO off duty for a furlough day or reducing the size of a department puts the public at risk. It’s that simple. The number of LEOs on the street is more than a budget issue when a DUI driver causes a pile up, when a domestic violence victim is screaming for help on the phone or when a mad man walks into a shopping mall intent on killing as many people as possible.
  • As to due process rights, I have seen some horrible things done to LEOs since I became an attorney. LEOs being terminated because they refused to withdraw a ticket, drop charges or spoke with their political leaders. Private sector employees do not have to arrest a city council member’s friend for DUI or use force, deadly or not, to protect themselves on a regular basis. The private sector does not face liability every day for following policy and performing the tasks listed in their job descriptions. That is reality for LEOs.

That’s it, in a nutshell. If you believe a group is abusing the right of collective bargaining then take issue with them. Don’t paint with a broad brush. Take issue with the people faking illness and using false physician notes. However, throwing out the concept of collective bargaining is improper and unproductive.

One interesting note. Although collective bargaining is seen as a left leaning political issue, most LEOs vote with a conservative bent. If you follow the rhetoric, LEOs routinely vote against their own interests. So, maybe this is not a left v. right political issue.

I hope you appreciate this article. Now that you are done, please take a moment to think about the LEO who will be on duty tonight without a bullet proof vest following an obviously DUI driver. Her shift may be short-handed due to furloughs. Right before she turns on the blue lights she should be focused on officer safety not the risk of stopping the “wrong person.” Because she will go to work under those conditions, I will continue to go to work for her and her brothers and sisters who voluntarily risk their lives for strangers.

Stay safe.

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