What police unions do (and why it matters)

As labor unions brace for SCOTUS to rule in Janus v. AFSCME, here’s a reminder of the history, role and value of police unions


On February 26, 2018, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, a U.S. labor law case concerning the right of labor unions to collect fees from non-union members for the service of collective bargaining. A decision is expected by early summer.

I was recently asked three questions about police unions:

  1. A new police officer asked: “Why do I have to pay union dues?
  2. A community member who is a supporter of law enforcement asked: “Why do police unions endorse politicians when cops are supposed be unbiased?
  3. An educator asked: “Why do police unions go to the hill for bad cops even when it’s clear to everyone that the cop did something wrong?”

In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions by:

A company of Massachusetts Militia await assignment to police duty during the Boston police strike in 1919. (Photo/Public Domain)
A company of Massachusetts Militia await assignment to police duty during the Boston police strike in 1919. (Photo/Public Domain)
  • Providing a brief history of police unions in the labor movement;
  • Describing the role of police unions in advocating for their members;
  • Discussing the impartiality of our profession;
  • Reviewing what the future holds for police unions.

History of police unions

Police officers started to form unions in the early 1900s in conjunction with the labor movement that was sparked by the industrial revolution.

The earliest example of why police officers started to form unions is commonly associated with the Boston Police Department.

Boston police officers did not receive pay increases from 1898 through 1913. In addition, they were often required to work 72 hours per week and pay for their own uniforms.

In 1919, Boston cops unionized affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

After unionizing, 17 of the union leaders were suspended, which led to the majority of Boston’s police officers walking off the job. Violence in the city ensued after the walkout and, needless to say, after this occurred police officers were prevented from striking.

Despite this incident police officers would continue to unionize and, as a result, most police officers belong to some sort of collective bargaining unit today.

Our younger officers simply may not know that if it were not for unionization, they would not enjoy many of the benefits (wages, rights and working conditions) they enjoy today.

The role of police unions

The role of police unions is no different from that of other labor unions. Police unions exist to advocate for their membership.

Legally unions are responsible for representing their members. The public seems to support this premise when it concerns other labor unions, but not those who represent police officers. Even members of other labor unions, particularly those who belong to educator unions, don’t seem to support this premise when it comes to police unions.

Many of them have taken to the streets to protest against police officers, criticized police unions for defending their members and called for an end of binding arbitration for police officers.

We are to blame for this in part because unlike other unions, we very seldom admit when one of us makes a mistake. An occasional reminder to the public regarding the legal obligation of unions to defend their members and admitting when we make a mistake could go a long way toward improving neighborhood relations.

The impartiality of police unions

When we divert from Sir Robert Peel’s 5th principle – “To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law” – we run into problems.

Candidates for political office often come to police unions seeking an endorsement, but are we demonstrating impartial service to the law by offering such endorsements? I would argue we are not being impartial and, for this reason, suggest that police unions get out of the candidate endorsement business and focus on issue advocacy.

Politicians often seek the endorsement of a police union so they can say they are tough on crime. Historically police union endorsements have been beneficial to candidates, but that may not be the case any longer.

I have been told by many candidates all over the country who are seeking a local office that the police union endorsement is not as favorable as it once was. As one politician said, “When my dad held this office he knew the police union endorsement was worth at least 10,000 votes, but now it’s worth maybe 200. Why? Ninety-five per cent of the officers and their families no longer live in the district, so they can’t vote for me anyhow.”

The future of police unions

Labor unions around the country are bracing for the United States Supreme Court to rule in Janus v. AFSCME.

Currently 22 states require public employees to pay fair share unions dues regardless if they want to be a part of the union or not. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, public employees will no longer be required to pay fair share union dues. Should this happen, it would be up to each officer to decide if she or he wanted to be a part of their union.

Wisconsin recently passed similar legislation to that which is contested in Janus and unions in that state have seen a 40 percent drop in their membership. The future of unions will forever be changed if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus.

Conclusion

I first joined a union when I was 18 years old. I was very active in my local union, serving as a steward until I made the transition into administration a few years ago.

I firmly believe in collective bargaining. As an administrator, it’s a lot easier to deal with a union regarding workplace issues as opposed to individual officers.

The endorsement of candidates for political office and the adamant defense of officers who have clearly violated our oath of office are pushing our younger officers from seeing the value in their unions.

I understand legally a union is required to represent an officer, but in cases where someone has clearly violated our oath of office, publically defending an officer who has clearly violated our oath of office strains neighborhood relations and erodes trust.

If police unions are to survive what I believe will be a ruling in favor of Janus, they will have to get support from younger officers. It is incumbent for veteran officers to show the next generation of cops the value of being part of a union and show that unions do far more than just endorse candidates or defend officers who clearly violate our oath of office.

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