Updated: Sep 13
911, state your emergency.
Yes, police and fire do a good job, but their unions keep taking more, more, more. Please send help!
What is happening with public safety unions? Well, as America industrialized, big business operated in an unbridled world lacking any fundamental regulations. Unsafe working conditions, long working days and child labor were common. Workers organized unions to protest these abuses, and government responded by enacting regulations protecting workers.
Similarly, public safety unions were needed in the past to protect police and fire workers, some who were poorly trained and equipped and underpaid. Allowing police and fire collectively to protest these conditions was understandable.
Salaries & Safety have Improved
Now however, police and fire employees are among the highest paid public employees. In Texas, after a year in a police or fire academy, they start work at about $55,000 and $56,000, respectively. By comparison, teachers starting salaries are $40,000 after completing a four-year bachelor program.
Training and equipment have reduced injuries and deaths in public safety, and now the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics include garbage collectors, truck drivers, farmers/ranchers and landscapers.
But the doctrine of unintended consequences keeps us from radioing a big 10-4 and calling end of watch.
But Costs & Complexity Grow
Taxpayers are now on a treadmill racing to fund more union benefits. Public safety is the largest part of most municipal budgets, leaving less for other programs such as parks, libraries and streets.
Aside from cost is the complexity. Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) contain complicated minutia regarding shifts, pay scales, personal leave, additional pay assignments and other benefits. Negotiations require a team of legal, accounting and programmatic experts to decipher this arcana. Try explaining these terms to the public.
But explaining the hidden costs of unions puts public officials at disadvantage because police and fire have the halo effect. Their badges and uniforms afford them instant credibility with the public, but managers are viewed as tie-wearing bureaucrats. Even simply questioning union benefits leads to accusations of being “soft on crime.” Heresy.
And Results are Uncertain
However, the real question is, “Do public safety unions make the public … safer?” Are Weslaco homeowners more protected by Weslaco’s unionized firemen than homeowners in union-less Palmview? Is violent crime lower in union-less Rio Grande City than in unionized McAllen? Check your city compared to others with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting or the ISO ratings for fire departments.
No study shows a correlation between unions and performance. Americans can support police and fire, without supporting public safety unions. Union or not, generally most do good work.
With More Institutional Hands
But most unionized departments are backed-up by civil service (which protects police/fire) and public safety Political Action Committees (PAC) which empower departments to elect their bosses, who then vote on CBAs (which entitle police/fire). Perfectly legal and democratic. Yeah.
So more complexity, more dollars, no link to results... on a treadmill. Still waiting on 911? Are unions now an American anachronism? How did we get here?
Looking for Answers
Look in the mirror. Municipal voters approved propositions requiring their city to bargain with unions. Seemed like a good idea at the time. But unlike protesting labor abuses by big unaccountable corporate executives, the public can hold elected officials accountable through annual elections if cities do not provide adequately for police and fire.
Americans just have followed their instinct and blindly supported the badge and uniform. Now, the halos may be fading. The times are changing.
Leonardo Olivares has managed police and fire departments in unionized and non-unionized cities. Original article in the Rio Grande Guardian.