Misguided efforts by elected officials and police chiefs seek to deflect from their own failings by blaming police unions. These appointed and elected officials have mounted a public campaign that police unions are too strong, too politically influential and too resistant to change.
Police unions are being unfairly singled out — they are no stronger, politically influential nor resistant to change than any other labor union. If anything, police unions yield less political clout because they are independent employee associations not backed by the power of national and international unions like AFSCME, Teamsters, SEIU or the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
The attempt by elected and appointed officials to undermine police unions but not other unions is a coordinated effort to undermine only those unions that speak out against them or chose not to endorse them. It is a bald attempt to silence those unions they cannot control or who dare speak against them and deflects attention off themselves for not holding their own police departments accountable.
It is a union's duty to advocate for its members, and this advocacy includes supporting bills helpful to, and opposing bills detrimental to, the membership. Non-police unions proudly advertise their political advocacy: AFSCME, which has nearly 3,500 locals in 46 states, uses the tagline: "fighting for candidates who will fight for us," and IAM, one of the largest labor unions in North America with 600,000 members, says "it's our civic duty to take part in our democracy by voting for who we want to serve in our government."
When Education Minnesota strives "to influence public policy" by encouraging its 80,000 members to "vote for candidates with the courage and vision to provide our schools and our students with the resources they need to succeed," it is good union advocacy, but when done by a police union, it is an example of being too politically influential and resistant to change. The same politicians who bemoan the strength of police unions have been inexplicably silent with regard to all of the other labor unions in Minnesota. The message is clear: Only unions that agree with their political agenda enjoy the right to free speech and are allowed to advocate for their membership. This is something that should concern every union leader in Minnesota — when will the politicians turn on your members?
Police chiefs and elected officials further attempt to deceive the public to believe that unions are at fault for so-called "bad apple" officers keeping their jobs, but this is not reality. Police departments have far more responsibility for keeping "bad apples" than they let on. Those unwilling to be accountable for their own actions are unlikely to hold problem officers accountable. Elected and appointed officials are seeking to defund law enforcement while simultaneously undermining the public employees' chosen representative to fight the defunding. The truth is that unions have a fiduciary responsibility to represent their members. They should not be faulted for excelling in their duty to vigorously defend their membership.
There are multiple opportunities in the career of a police officer for management to weed out these so-called bad apples. Before being hired, police officers must undergo an extensive background process, including a psychological evaluation. After hire, officers serve a probationary period in which, even if represented by a union, they remain at-will employees and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. After probation, the sole discretion to train, supervise and discipline rests with the chief and the department.
Yet, chiefs have repeatedly allowed officers to keep their jobs after demonstrated poor performance, officer safety issues, and an inability to improve over the course of their probation and their career. Departments ignore input from supervisors and field training officers about documented deficiencies and lower standards to enable an officer to pass. When departments knowingly promote poor performing officers or fail to adequately train and supervise, it leads to problems. Promotions were never intended to function as a means to move inept officers from the street, as political payback, or as a general reward for those well-liked. Yet, this has become too common for too many police departments. Departments set officers up to fail when they do not invest the time and money necessary to properly train them and for supervisors to do their jobs proficiently.
Arbitration is not to blame. Arbitration for police, just as in other public labor sectors — firefighters, teachers, nurses, public works, etc. — developed as a means to provide due process provisions to protect employees against arbitrary discipline and to allow for a neutral evaluation of discipline cases. Before the Police Accountability Act of 2020, to become an arbitrator, an individual had to demonstrate "substantial knowledge of collective bargaining and labor relations matters." That requirement is now optional. That is a troubling reduction in qualifications that should concern every public union in Minnesota. A better approach would have been to add to the requirements.
Public statements reveal that many police chiefs blame unions and the arbitration process in an effort to gain the unchecked power to make disciplinary decisions without independent review. Multiple studies of police disciplinary arbitration suggest that the terminations of police officers are often overturned due to police department error. At times, arbitrations involving disciplinary matters are a result of the department not treating similarly situated officers the same, an easy standard to apply if one believes in the basic principles of fairness. When this occurs, it is a fairly good indication that the department was motivated by ill will toward the officer or by desire to retaliate against the officer rather than some broader good. In short, it would be even easier for a chief to play favorites without a neutral review.
The union's role in defending an employee's due process rights through arbitration is rooted in collective bargaining agreements negotiated and approved by management. If wages are the heart of the labor agreement, job security may be considered its soul. Arbitration is particularly critical for police officers who are statutorily prohibited from striking. Police unions, like any other union, provide a necessary check on management.
Allison Schaber is president of the Ramsey County Deputy Sheriff's Union.