George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and the ensuing protests and urban riots, have brought police departments under enormous scrutiny and widespread hostility. Liberals and conservatives alike have identified police unions as a barrier to salutary reform. They aren’t wrong—and union contracts are one reason why reforming police departments is so hard. But while Left and Right may agree about police unions, those on the left would not make a broader connection: that the problems posed by police unions in particular are similar to those with public-sector unions in general.
Liberal sympathy for organized labor doesn’t extend to police unions because cops are seen as the “bad proletariat.” Liberals try to paint the problems of police unions as unique to law enforcement, rather than endemic to unionized government. In the wake of the Floyd killing, some have called for the abolition of police forces—and, in Minneapolis, the city council has announced that it will “begin the process” of disbanding the city’s police department. On the other side, conservative aversion to government unions often stops short of police unions because conservatives worry that criticism of cop unions will be mistaken for criticism of the police. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, excluded police unions from Act 10, which dramatically weakened public-sector unions in his state.
The deeper problem is that unionization and collective bargaining have made it almost impossible to bring about meaningful reform of state and local government, policing included. The consequences are huge, because the inability to reform government means that performance suffers and public trust in key institutions declines.
Collective bargaining is not fundamentally about products or services—whether public safety, education, automobiles, or anything else—but about the power and interests of workers and management. Public-sector unions are in the business of winning better salaries and benefits, protecting job security, and advancing their members’ occupational interests. Organizational incentives, and state law, ensure that union leaders prioritize these amenities.
Police and public schools are the institutions of government with which Americans most frequently engage. Police protect our most vulnerable citizens and allow communities to thrive. Schools offer opportunities for social mobility. There are thousands of heroic and devoted police officers and school teachers. But unionization and collective bargaining have enmeshed these two crucial government functions in red tape that too often protects the inept and abusive.
Collective bargaining in the public-safety and educational sectors strips government executives of the tools they need to supervise and manage their workforces effectively. Police chiefs and school principals struggle to weed out poor performers. A few bad actors can undermine an entire organizational culture.
Upholding the law presents unique challenges, and police can have adversarial relationships with the communities whom they serve. Consequently, police-union contracts contain myriad formal rules and procedures designed to protect police officers from the inevitable complaints—some justified, others not—that arise in the course of duty. Many big-city union contracts limit officer interrogation procedures after alleged wrongdoing, mandate the deletion of disciplinary records, and require cumbersome grievance proceedings.
Language spelling out these procedures often makes up the largest part of any contract—it’s roughly 20 percent of the New York City police officers’ contract, for example. These provisions allow both police unions and individual officers to challenge personnel actions by their superiors. If the matter can’t be settled by appealing up the chain of command, it is sent to binding arbitration. Arbitrators often split the difference and avoid dismissing officers. For instance, in 2018, a Seattle arbitrator reinstated—with back pay—an officer fired for punching a handcuffed, intoxicated woman. The nuisance involved in dealing with grievances, and the prospect that an appeal will reverse the outcome anyway, can dissuade supervisors from initiating discipline procedures against poor performers.
Police officers accused of misconduct are, consequently, rarely disciplined or punished insofar as investigations are long, highly regulated, and allow for frequent appeals. One study found that the worst 5 percent of officers in the Chicago Police Department accounted for a third of all civilian complaints. But few were ever disciplined or removed. Jason Van Dyke, the officer who killed an unarmed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014, was among the officers with the most civilian complaints. But he remained on active duty.
Teachers also enjoy extensive job protections that make them nearly impossible to fire. State laws and union contracts create a labyrinth of paperwork and processes. In most school districts, over 95 percent of teachers receive satisfactory ratings and get tenure (which means more job protections) after three years on the job. Many principals don’t even bother trying to dismiss bad teachers because of the costs involved. One study found that dismissing a veteran teacher for poor performance takes a minimum of two years; in Los Angeles and San Francisco, it takes at least five years.
Even teachers accused of sexual misconduct rarely lose their jobs. Under many state laws or union contracts, an independent investigator—usually an independent law firm or the school superintendent—first vets any accusation. Then the case goes before an arbitrator chosen by the teachers’ union and school district. Usually arbitrators’ decisions split the difference and result in suspensions or fines rather than dismissal.
As a result of such protections, New York City infamously put hundreds of teachers in “rubber rooms,” where they were paid full salaries and accrued benefits but could not interact with kids. This “program” cost the city some $800 million a year. Unable to end it fully, the city converted it into the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), which continued to pay teachers not to teach to the tune of $105 million a year. In 2019, 930 teachers held spots in the ATR—perhaps 25 of whom were there because of charges of misconduct—costing the city nearly $100 million in salaries and benefits.
Within the confines of collective bargaining, public executives need to push for a recovery of management rights. Only then might school principals and police chiefs have a fighting chance of improving their organizations. Going further, states may want to revisit the extent to which work rules that establish disciplinary procedures should even be the subject of collective bargaining. Greater accountability in state and local government would be better for everyone, good teachers and cops included. Weeding out poor performers will improve public services, protect communities, boost organizational morale, and spur upward mobility. It’s time to put the mission of public agencies ahead of job protections for public workers.
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