Command Officer’s Association Lawsuit … and the real issue
Last summer, the Police Command Officer’s Association (COA) refused to agree to mid-contract concessions with the city last year, citing the city’s actions in negotiating with their brother union, the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POA) as a violation of the “terms of good faith concession agreements made with the POA.” In response, the city unilaterally acted to cut COA labor costs by reducing the work week to 37.5 hours.
The reduction in work hours resulted in the POA filing a union grievance against the city, which in turn resulted in both parties bringing their case before an arbitrator. 1969 PA 312 dictates binding arbitration as a remedy in the case of Police and Fire labor grievances, where the workers are specifically barred from striking by law.
The Arbitrator’s Decision and COA Reaction
In this case the arbitrator, who as specified by P.A. 312, was agreed upon by both parties before hearing the case, decided to side with the city and upheld the work week reduction.
According to a story published December 28th by the Advisor and Source newspapers, the COA, dissatisfied with the arbitrator’s ruling, has now filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging “that the city breached the existing collective bargaining agreement by reducing members’ workweeks from 40 hours to 37.5 hours, and that the arbitrator assigned to resolve the grievance filed by the Command Officers Association improperly ‘used economic factors to invalidate the expressed terms of the parties’ CBA.'”
Quoting further from the Advisor and Source article, “Our officers were upset that the arbitrator took into consideration factors that were outside the contract,” said Martha Champine, assistant general counsel for the Police Officers Association of Michigan. “We felt the arbitrator, under the law, had exceeded his authority.” (emphasis added)
Act 312 §9 specifically states the things the arbitrator is allowed to consider in a case like this. One of the chief things to be taken under consideration is the city’s ability to pay. Another key consideration is a comparison of the wages for the public employees vs. similar communities in the state.
In my opinion, the suit is without merit. First, Sterling Heights Police remain the highest-paid police in the state. Any comparison of our cops’ pay vs similar cities in the state does not come out favorably for the COA. Second, the city is clearly under financial stress. The 2011/12 budget spends down the “rainy day fund” to dangerously low levels as it is, and there is already talk of another tax increase to finance road repairs. Could the city pay the command officers for a full 40-hour work week? Likely it could, but doing so without some other reductions elsewhere would compromise the city’s financial health.
The Real Issue
Everyone seems to have forgotten that the regular officers of the Sterling Heights Police are currently operating under the terms of an expired contract, and have been since the end of June 2011. From what I have heard, our city’s high-priced labor attorney is stonewalling: no negotiations are taking place. Since public employees are forbidden to strike under the law, it would seem that the City Administration is actively seeking to continue the stalemate.
Put another way, for now the cops don’t have a contract, and the city seems to be happy to have it that way.
It comes down to fairness
I am no big proponent of labor unions, but on the other hand I want to see the cops treated fairly. My sole problem with the unions, in this case, is that I believe they too often use their leverage against the citizens’ best interest. That is not taking place right now; things have tilted too far the other way. I’m for fairness for all of the parties involved.
We’ve paid a labor attorney $50,000, ostensibly to negotiate a fair deal for us and the police. Instead, we have a lawsuit from the COA, a POA without a contract, a Dispatch operation that is in fear of losing jobs via consolidation with the county, and a city of 129,000 which cannot be getting the same level of police service they deserve.
The men and women on the police force no doubt feel like their employer is out to screw them, and they’re only human. When you get pulled over for a traffic stop, do you want to be confronted by somebody who’s angry about their job? How about when you need them to protect your life in a home invasion? Do you want them holding back because they aren’t being treated fairly?
This situation is shameful, and I lay the blame at the feet of the City Administration. Simply put, they have abdicated their responsibility to properly administrate the city, leaving it in the hands of an attorney. Although I think our police department is overpaid and that the residents deserve some economy in these tough times, I expect the City Administration to do its job.
Is the labor attorney behaving in a self-serving manner by goading the officers into actions that will no doubt result in higher fees for his firm? If the Administration was doing its job, this wouldn’t be a question anyone could ask.
What City Council Should Do
Ultimately, the responsibility for what is going on here gets pinned on the elected officials. Joe Romano can rant and rave all he likes about the waste of time and money the lawsuit represents, but it is within Council’s power to pass a resolution ordering the City Manager to get the labor contracts negotiated expeditiously. Since they are more than willing to pass resolutions on things outside their purview (re: ‘smart meters’), how about a resolution ordering both parties back to the bargaining table?