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Memphis Police “Blue Flu” Protest Sheds Light on Limitations of Tools

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By Dr. Chuck Russo, faculty member at American Military University

Most know and agree that law enforcement officers—and other public safety personnel—cannot strike. The ensuing situation would be pure chaos. If all officers, deputies, troopers, corrections officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, dispatchers, and other public safety personnel stayed home for a few days, things would get pretty ugly, pretty quickly.

However, without the ability to strike, the tools available to public safety employees to resolve workplace issues are pretty limited. The only tools they can use to resolve disputes are the ones the city, county, or state give them—and, remember, those are the people the dispute is with.

After all, if you knew you were going to have an argument with someone, would you give them an effective tool to argue back against you? Many municipalities have given public safety personnel few avenues to resolve disputes such as pay, benefits, pension, sick time, educational tuition reimbursement, vacation time, etc.

Officers walking awayUnfortunately, not all states have binding arbitration. In these cases, the city or county and the union can negotiate and reach an impasse. Once an impasse is called, both go to arbitration to state their respective case. The arbitrator then reaches a decision and informs both parties. What happens next depends on the state. In states with binding arbitration, the arbitrator’s decision becomes implemented. In states without binding arbitration, the city or county and union can reject the arbitrator’s decision and nothing happens. Eventually, both parties go back to the negotiation table and the game continues. Collective bargaining gives employees a collective voice, but in many states it doesn’t give them much else.

Court cases in Michigan and Rhode Island as well as municipalities around the country have allowed governments to walk away from past agreements that were negotiated in good faith. Generally, to reach such agreements, both sides have to give a little. Now we have one side that already compromised some to reach an agreement and the other side can change the rules and not give anything in return. When governments start taking such actions, these actions deserve measures that draw attention to them.

“Sick outs,” while temporary at best, are an effective strategy as seen in Memphis, Tennessee. As of July 10, hundreds of Memphis police officers have called out sick, which is a quarter of the agency’s 2,200-person force. This “blue flu” strategy is in protest to reductions in officers’ heath care subsidies.

As seen in Memphis, such a mass exodus by employees has the ability to draw media attention, cause a negative financial impact on the government (due to the cost in attracting and training new personnel as well as the overtime costs incurred in ramping up these new hires to solo status), and may also help put political pressure on those in government.

The current issues in Memphis have shed light on what is occurring across the country. Whether it is a double-digit percent pay cut causing a mass exodus of police officers in Hollywood, Florida or the pay and benefit reduction of police officers in San Jose, California, the events that trigger an organized response from public safety employees have lasting negative impacts to that agency, that government, and those who work and travel in that area.

It is unfortunate that those guiding government rarely seem to care about such long-term ramifications. Once they obtain a political office, the only concern appears to be “what must I do to stay in this office or get a better one?” Lately, the answer seems to be “kick” those who do not have the ability to “kick back.

Should public safety employees be given more tools to have their voices heard?

About the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo has been involved with American Military University since 2001. He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. Dr. Russo earned his Master of Arts degree in education in 1995 and Master of Science degree in criminal justice in 1996 from the University of Central Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in public affairs at the University of Central Florida in 2006. His research focuses on emerging technology and law enforcement applications.

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