I am a member of a public-sector employee union.
In conservative circles, such an admission is tantamount to the sort one might hear at a 12-step meeting, an acknowledgment of some shameful addiction most decent people think should be corrected as quickly but as quietly as possible. But one should not infer from this admission that I am a parasite on the taxpayers of the city that employs me. In fact I would argue quite the opposite, that in the more than 25 years I have served with the Los Angeles Police Department, the citizens of the city have gotten their money’s worth from me and then some. I would further argue that when I retire sometime in the next few years, I will be fully deserving of the pension and other continuing benefits promised to me when as a young man I joined up with the LAPD.
As readers of my previous two columns (here and here) will know, I am not unsympathetic to the criticisms of public-sector unions and the tactics they sometimes employ in pursuit of improved wages, benefits, and working conditions for their members. And I’ve at times been especially critical of my own union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, most recently when it badly misjudged its members and encouraged them to participate in pro-union demonstrations organized by MoveOn.org and other organizations whose views run counter to those held by the vast majority of police officers.
That said, I disagree with those conservatives who hold that public-sector unions are inherently objectionable. “Private sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in the Feb. 22 Los Angeles Times. “Government unions negotiate with politicians over taxpayer money … ”
To which I would answer, so what?
Like businesses, governments hire employees to perform those functions deemed necessary to fulfill their purposes. The fact that government employees are paid with taxpayers’ money does not negate the basic economic principle of bringing together “a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” That this principle has been bastardized into a money-laundering scheme that benefits one political party at the expense of the other — and at the expense of the taxpayer — should not be viewed as cause to abandon it, but rather as a call to elect representatives who might be more prudent stewards of the public fisc.
Citizens constitute governments and elect representatives whom they entrust with the authority to spend public money in the pursuit of public needs, among the most basic and necessary of which are fighting fires and fighting crime. Only a small fraction of the population is disposed to either profession, and it is in any community’s interests to hire and retain the people best qualified for those jobs.
Which is why I draw a distinction between public-safety employees and others who work for the government. Not every government employee has an equal claim to a share of the treasury. A government office clerk who becomes dissatisfied with his pay or his health insurance or his working conditions can go out and seek a similar job in the private sector, where the opportunities are abundant but where he will almost surely discover he is expected to work harder than he ever did in his government post.
But there is no private-sector market for police officers or firefighters. And it’s even difficult for a police officer or firefighter to move from one city’s department to another’s, making it all the more important for these workers to form unions and bargain for equitable wages and benefits. The alternative would be to allow cities to offer attractive compensation packages for as long as it takes to fill its fire and police rosters, then cut pay and benefits once the hiring goals are achieved and the employees are for all practical purposes left with no alternative but to stay put.
I’ll use my own experience as an example. When I graduated from college I explored a number of employment opportunities, but I had not rid myself of the fascination with police work I had held for many years. I made application with a number of police departments, but my preference was to join the LAPD, whose large size and many specializations offered more career paths than the smaller agencies I also considered. Also, I had grown up in Los Angeles and had friends on the LAPD, all of whom enjoyed the work and encouraged me to join them on the job.
At the time I was hired, the LAPD was among the top California departments in pay and benefits. Some of the smaller agencies paid more, but for me the LAPD’s advantages cited above more than compensated for whatever marginal difference in pay there might have been. I worked patrol assignments for a few years and earned two promotions, all the while paying scant attention to how my compensation was keeping pace with inflation and with that offered by other cities. By 1994 the LAPD had fallen to eighth place among California’s ten largest cities when it came to police officer pay, a fact revealed during contentious negotiations for a new contract.
Had there been an open market for police officers, I would have been content to put my services out for competing bids. But moving to another department would have meant starting at the bottom and forfeiting the steps in rank I had earned with the LAPD. I had also sustained a serious injury while making an arrest, one that might have ended my career. I recovered, but the injury was such that it might have precluded my being hired by another department.
And it’s worth noting that in 1994 LAPD officers had worked for about two years without a contract while being strung along with promises of a raise that never materialized. Even after city sanitation workers and those at the municipal water and power agency were given raises, we police officers were told that none would be offered. This led to the only job action I’ve experienced in my career, one in which off-duty officers marched on City Hall (very politely, mind you, unlike the rabble in Madison), and engaged in a two-day sick-out. (Also unlike the protests in Madison, which closed schools in Madison, Milwaukee, and elsewhere when teachers called in sick, there was no disruption of police service in Los Angeles. The sick-out was coordinated in such a way that some officers worked overtime to cover for those who called in sick. The tactic worked: we soon had a contract and a raise.)
If there had been no police union in Los Angeles, the city would have been free to let police pay and benefits stagnate or even decline, ensuring that the LAPD would not be competitive in recruiting new officers and retaining those already on the job. How important is this? The price of a demoralized police department is paid in lives, as was proven here in Los Angeles some years ago. The only interruption to what has otherwise been a 19-year decline in murders in Los Angeles came between 1998 and 2002, during Bernard Parks’ tenure as chief of the LAPD. So dysfunctional was the department during that time that hundreds of officers fled to other agencies, taking their training and experience with them. Even some tenured sergeants and detectives jumped ship, preferring to start over elsewhere rather than remain with the LAPD. Murders in Los Angeles went from 419 in 1998 to 647 in 2002, an increase for which Parks, with his autocratic leadership style and unduly harsh disciplinary policies, bears the greatest share of responsibility.
There are those who say police officers and firefighters are overpaid to start with, that cops do nothing but drive around and firefighters do nothing but sit around until something happens that requires their attention. I’ll grant you that there can be considerable downtime in both professions, but police officers and firefighters are not only paid for what they do, they’re paid for what they’re willing and able to do, which is to place themselves in danger while everyone else is fleeing from it. Recall the images of the 9/11 attacks and the mobs of people who, with abundant good reason, were fleeing lower Manhattan. Now recall the police officers and firefighters rushing the opposite way, some never to be seen again. It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates the extremes to which police officers and firefighters are willing to go.
Even so, it would be arrogant for police officers and firefighters to insist that they and they alone should be immunized from the effects of a struggling economy. Sometimes concessions are necessary, and here in Los Angeles, police officers and firefighters have made some. Two years ago we agreed to a contract with no raises, and only weeks later we watched with incredulity as workers at the municipal utility were given a four-year contract with raises every year. Police officers and firefighters contribute to the cost of their medical coverage (the amount depends on which plan one chooses and how many family members are covered), and they pay 9 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, up from 8 percent a few years ago. In the LAPD, we’ve also seen the elimination of cash overtime, resulting in a net decrease of 10 to 20 percent in take-home pay for many officers and even more for some. Worse, since officers are now compensated in time off for overtime worked, and because there is a cap on how much time they can accrue, on any given day there may be hundreds of officers off duty who would otherwise be working. And the elimination of overtime in the Fire Department has resulted in firehouses being shut down on a rotating basis for lack of people to staff them.
Earlier this month, voters in Los Angeles passed a city charter amendment that will change the pensions and retiree health benefits for newly hired police officers and firefighters, lessening the costs to the city. Which is all well and good going forward, and prospective candidates for both departments can evaluate those new terms in weighing their employment options.
I never expected to get rich as a cop (and indeed I haven’t), but the city of Los Angeles made a deal with me more than 25 years ago, one based on the need to attract applicants at the time and on actuarial assumptions about the future. And since becoming a cop I’ve been shot at twice, saved two lives, sustained a near-crippling injury, and made hundreds upon hundreds of arrests, the great majority of them for felonies and many of them at great personal risk. I’ve lived up to my end of the bargain I made when I signed up, and I don’t think it’s unfair to expect the city of Los Angeles to do the same. It is my union, whatever its faults, that will help me make sure it does.