On Labor Day Eve 2016, the New York Times published an editorial criticizing the role of police unions during the current era of police brutality. While NYT is right to call out recent egregious police behavior and there is something to be said for taking union leaders to task when they blindly and publicly support officers who have engaged in those acts, that loud splashing noise is the union baby being thrown out with the bath water.
There are valid complaints about the politics of police unions, with their funding and support of certain local candidates and issues, and their threat not to police football games because they do not support the political stance of some players. These decisions damage the credibility of the institution and its members. But, the notion put forth by the NYT editorial board that police violence can be curbed by eliminating unions, is wholly wrongheaded.
Police Need Unions for the Same Reasons All Workers Need Unions
Unions, including police unions, represent their members by improving and protecting wages and working conditions. A working condition “enjoyed” by most American workers is that of “at-will” employment, which is the ability to leave or be terminated from a job for any (or no) reason. Unions negotiate collective bargaining agreements that require employers to demonstrate just cause for termination. Thus, unionized workers have representatives who advocate important due process rights through a system of labor arbitration presided over by a corps of experienced labor arbitrators. It is precisely this system that enables San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, himself, to be confident that the NFL cannot fire him simply for refusing to stand for the National Anthem. Without the players’ union, he would not enjoy such job security.
Yet, rightly outraged by the highly-publicized acts of some murderous/corrupt cops, the NYT editorial board wrongly laments that their punishment might be overturned or downgraded by an arbitrator and thus represents an “impediment to justice.” Don’t some people make the same argument that the due process protections in the American criminal justice system impede the ability to bring criminals to justice?
For nearly a century, the labor-management grievance arbitration system has successfully wrestled with these issues. Unions and companies negotiate, at arms length, agreements regarding how employees can be disciplined, including the process by which such discipline is adjudicated. Parties who are experienced in labor relations well know that egregious misconduct is very hard to defend. Unions cannot simply wave a magic wand and win unmeritorious grievances. Indeed, in some cases, unions are justified in withdrawing a grievance and letting serious discipline stand. In other cases, experienced labor arbitrators are called in to decide whether there was “just cause” for the discipline. The vast majority of the time, these arbitrators tackle tough cases head on and get them right. To suggest that this system be scrapped simply because of the fear that arbitrators might “split the baby” and reinstate a bad employee suggests that there is a better option. There isn’t.
Would the NYT prefer that employers have unfettered discretion to decide whether to fire employees, as they do in non-union environments? In highly-publicized cases, should we look to public opinion polls to decide? Or, should we just defer in these cases to the wizened judgment of the NYT editorial board?
Check the bathwater, but keep this baby.