SAN ANTONIO – The debate over whether to repeal San Antonio police officers’ collective bargaining power is already in full swing, but what would the passage of Proposition B on May 1 actually do?
Supporters say passing Prop B is a step toward more local control over the police department, while opponents warn it would make it harder to retain and recruit officers. The specific mechanics, though, take a little more explaining and could have an immediate effect on ongoing contract talks.
Prop B, which was added to San Antonio’s May 1 ballot through a petition drive by the activist group Fix SAPD, would repeal Chapter 174 of the state’s local government code for police officers. That statute, which has to be locally adopted or repealed, gives police the power to collectively bargain for a contract that governs everything from officer discipline to their pay and benefits.
The City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association are in the middle of negotiating that contract right now. Taking away the union’s power to engage in those negotiations means any ongoing talks would be stopped in their tracks.
The existing police contract runs through Sep. 30 of this year and would stay in effect until then, even if voters pass Prop B. Similarly, any new contract that’s finalized before the vote would be safe for its primary term -- typically five years.
However, if Prop B is passed and negotiations for a new contract are still ongoing, things get trickier.
Assuming the city and union haven’t finalized a new contract before Prop B passes, the current one would continue through Sep. 30 when it expires. After that point, all the previously negotiated provisions both sides have been operating under -- everything from hiring procedures to health insurance -- would be thrown out.
Another state statute, Chapter 143, or “civil service,” would govern how the city handles issues such as officer discipline, promotions and hiring. Officers’ pay and health benefits, on the other hand, would largely fall under the city’s discretion.
“There’s no requirement (in) 143 to any level of pay. That’s -- you just start back at ground zero, if you will,” said Julia Gannaway, an employment law attorney from the Dallas-Fort Worth area who represents Texas cities in negotiations and civil service issues.
Without collective bargaining or another avenue for negotiation, though, state law would prevail in areas the contract used to cover.
Collective bargaining isn’t the only way police officers could negotiate a contract, though. Some other major police departments, like Austin and Houston, use a process known as “meet-and-confer,” which is substantially similar to collective bargaining. However, there’s nothing to force either side to negotiate like there is with the collective bargaining process -- nothing except their own interests, that is.
For example, officers may want to ensure they have good pay and benefits, while the city could want to change some of the disciplinary processes prescribed in Chapter 143. In that case, they’d both need to come to the bargaining table to get what they want.
“They have a heavy interest in talking to one another and fixing problems, and (meet-and-confer) gives them the tool,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, of which SAPOA is an affiliate. “And so, if you decide that you’re at impasse, then you don’t have to do anything. And so you could -- both parties could agree to a mediator, but it’s not forced by a time clock. And so those are the major differences. Other than that, you couldn’t tell the difference.”
But it’s not a simple matter of exchanging collective bargaining for a meet-and-confer system of negotiation. State law requires a petition process from officers and a vote -- either by the city council or the city as a whole -- before meet-and-confer can be put into use.
Fix SAPD officials have said they’re supportive of meet-and-confer over collective bargaining, which they believe the union has used to solidify its power. Wilkison, though, is skeptical about the political reality of the city choosing to institute meet-and-confer after repealing collective bargaining.
“Why would you, you know, turn around and go right back into contract negotiations when the public has publicly said ‘we don’t want contract negotiations in San Antonio?’” Wilkison said.
Similarly, SAPOA President John “Danny” Diaz said the union would rather keep its collective bargaining power, and it would be a “flip of a coin” if the city council, which would include new members by that time, would vote to approve meet-and-confer.
“City council is -- for everyone -- is hit and miss. We don’t know where they’re going with it or what they would want to do. So that puts us in a tough spot,” Diaz said.
Fix SAPD views the repeal of police officers’ collective bargaining power as a step toward more local control over the department. It believes the current union contract protects bad officers from being fired.
However, some of the discipline-related items in the contract that both Fix SAPD and the City of San Antonio have said are problems -- such as the ability of officers to get their firings overturned through an appeals process -- that are still included in some form in Chapter 143. So repealing collective bargaining won’t necessarily make the changes they want.
Fix SAPD is also working on a petition to get the local repeal of Chapter 143 in front of voters, too, though that requires a much higher signature threshold than the petition for Chapter 174 did.
“This is a first step,” said Fix SAPD Deputy Director Ananda Tomas. “We repeal 174; we pass Prop B, and then we look at the next chapter, Chapter 143, so we can create a whole new system all together.”
On the other side of the debate, Diaz says repealing the union’s collective bargaining power would lead to losing its benefits package and make it harder to keep or recruit officers.
“There’s a ton of officers that would leave,” Diaz said. “And just talking to some of our roll calls, we asked the other day, ‘How many of you with less than five years would leave if we lost collective bargaining?’ And the entire shift raise their hand, because that’s all they had was all new guys. So that’s that’s a scary thing for us. And that affects the citizens.”
Though the possibilities of Prop B’s passage loom large over the current negotiations, the city says it’s bargaining in good faith with the aim of agreeing on contract. It has made discipline its primary focus this time around, while the union has proposed few changes.
Asked about the city’s power over pay and benefits were collective bargaining to be repealed, First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio said, “I think the city has said that, you know, we will pay our officers fairly and will continue to be competitive with officer pay.”
The city and union are scheduled to meet next on Friday at 10 a.m. The negotiations will be live streamed online.