What do public sector Unions say about protect and serve in America?
As a Black mom, taxpayer and voter, when I think of the phrase “protect and serve,” I think of law enforcement and the role of government to protect and serve the public – to include children – regardless of race or income level.
So it should go without saying, when we the People, we the voter, we the taxpayers, give police officers permission to use force on our behalf, it is under the assumption that this force will be used in accordance with the law and their job description of serving and protecting the public. If an officer abuses this responsibility to the people, they should be held accountable for their choices, which should include being fired and other appropriate legal penalties.
It is the most basic purpose of government. As it says in The Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
In other words,law enforcement and our government in America doesn’t get to protect some citizens and some of the public, based on race and class – the equal protection text of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that states guarantee the same rights, privileges, and protections to all citizens.
Yet here we are again with another allegation of police brutality against the Black community. This time it is George Floyd, a Black man who died after he was knelt on by a police officer who had eighteen (18) excessive force complaints filed against him prior to the death of Mr. Floyd
This is where my mind gets stuck: Who protected this officer from the 18 excessive force complaints? Who protects public servants that go rogue and betray their oath to serve the public? The answer is clear: public sector unions.
Public sector unions have two unofficial yet official main functions:
- Protect their members at all costs (even if that protection harms the public).
- Ensure elected officials protect union members at all costs (even to the detriment of the taxpayer, voter, and children)
A judge from the New York Supreme Court in 1943 said it best:
“To tolerate or recognize any combination of civil service employees of the government as a labor organization or union is not only incompatible with the spirit of democracy, but inconsistent with every principle upon which our government is founded. Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen. To admit as true that government employees have power to halt or check the functions of government unless their demands are satisfied, is to transfer to them all legislative, executive, and judicial power. Nothing would be more ridiculous.”
Officer Friendly and Teachers
As a Black person in America, I have two distinct memories of what I was told while growing up in the 1970s: respect and listen to your teachers because they care about your education and please respect Officer Friendly. The messaging was clear, teachers and the police are our friends and are here to protect and serve us. Then I grew up. I became a parent myself and realized there were many gray areas and generalizations in what I was taught as a young girl. The truth is not all public servants and unions care about the public.
Police, Pandemics, Protest, Partisan Politics and Public Policy
These “Ps” have held my mind hostage for the last several months. This is a critical election year, combined with messy pandemic politics and quid pro quo partisan politics all wrapped up in a fractured country, polarized by fear mongering and unjust race relations.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., you cannot legislate the heart and morality, but you can regulate behavior. One of the clear ways to protect the public’s interest is to put checks and balances on public sector unions.
One checks and balance reform measure for a public sector union is to make public employee personnel records related to disciplinary actions public through freedom of information and public disclosure laws. This protects the public and school age children from bad state employees.
What if the Minneapolis Police Union did not allegedly help cover up the 18 excessive force complaints of this officer? Would Mr. Floyd still be alive?
This is not just about police shootings and other violence; it is also about racial profiling on the streets and hallways of our public schools. If you haven’t, watch South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott explain on the floor of the Senate how he was pulled over by police seven times in one year. Actions like these dehumanize, emasculate, and create distrust within vulnerable communities.
Let me be very clear, there are many good police officers and public school teachers
What we ask the police to do is extraordinary. We ask them to walk into terrible and unknown situations. They see what we do not want to see – domestic violence, child abuse, sexual violence, school shootings and drug addiction – just to name a few. But still, if “we the people” give them a gun and the power to use force, it must come with personal responsibility, accountability, and transparency.
It is clear that Unions stand in the way of all three areas: personal responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Police unions use the arbitration system to help “bad apples” get their jobs back even if the public wants them to be terminated. In addition, most bad apples get to keep their pensions, some in excess of a million dollars.
Public sector unions help craft laws that protect even the worst public servants, and we see the fallout from this in the most vulnerable communities. In Connecticut, for example, state law allows union contracts to override state statute (law). The state police used this power to exempt grievance hearings and personnel records from Freedom of Information requests.
The lawmakers who approved the state police contract despite it containing this provision are, of course, ultimately responsible. Public sector workers at the state and local level can only unionize because state lawmakers give them permission.
And it is not just police, they just happen to have the most visible power of any of our public servants. One could argue teachers have less visible but more potent power in a child’s life. Even more frightening, there are child protective service workers who have the power to take a child from their parents because of “predictive algorithms” and what they “think” will happen in the future, while protecting state employees who are demonstrably “bad apples”.
When the public gives bureaucrats this much power, elected officials should have the authority to fire bad workers. If our elected officials refuse to help fire bad apples, then we the people should have the power to recall ineffective elected officials.
Instead, elected officials in some states keep giving unions more power despite the harm they may do to the public.
In Rhode Island, the teachers’ unions fought a bill that would have criminalized a sexual relationship between a school employee and a student between the ages of 14 and 18. Current law allows teachers, bus drivers, or other adults to have a sexual relationship with a student over the age of 16.
This current moment in time begs for concrete action on the part of policymakers. Minnesota is a union-friendly state. So are New York, Maryland, Illinois, California, Connecticut – many of the states where these problems and others have persisted.
In order to improve the relationship between public employees and the people they serve, public sector unions should be replaced with employee organizations who understand the role of the public servant. This includes personal responsibility, accountability, transparency, and oversight. Ultimately, public employees are there to serve the public, not the other way around.