As with many employees across the country, a union protects the employment rights of Portland’s police commanders. A new move by the Portland mayor to decertify the police commanders’ union, however, has many employment rights advocates worried that the city is trying to infringe on the rights of commanding officers in the city.
Currently, the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association (PCOA), which was established in October of 1989, represents 51 lieutenants, captains and commanders within the city police. No other law enforcement union in the state of Oregon represents management-level officers, though other large cities (such as New York and Seattle) do have similar unions for officers who serve supervisory roles. As the Oregonian recently reported, Mayor Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is now arguing that the city’s commanding officers do not belong in unions.
Mayor Wants to Decertify Union; Cites Discipline Concerns
Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act (PECBA) governs the relationship between Oregon’s public employers – including, among others, the state of Oregon and its cities, counties, and school districts – and most public employees. However, PECBA’s definition of “public employee” for the purposes of collective bargaining specifically excludes “supervisory employees or managerial employees” from the definition.
Mayor Hales believes that police commanders are among the managerial employees who are not covered by PECBA, and who should not be unionized. Therefore, on May 1, a deputy Portland city attorney filed a petition with Oregon’s Employment Relations Board (the group that administers PECBA) seeking to clarify whether the members of PCOA are public employees under the terms of the Act.
Hales is arguing that the union members should be classified as managerial employees because they “exercise statutory management prerogatives with respect to hiring, transfer, promotion, assignment and directing of work, and discipline.” For the mayor, the major concern with the union is that unionized police lieutenants and commanders might be reluctant to discipline fellow union members.
Employment Rights Advocates Troubled by Anti-Union Move
Despite Hales’ justifications regarding a credible system of officer discipline, local employment rights advocates contend that the city’s petition is nothing less than a direct attack on unions. Will Aitchison, a Portland attorney who has represented the union for regular police officers (which would not be affected by Hales’ attempt to decertify the PCOA), says that decertifying the union would mean that supervising officers would lose a number of the protections they currently have, including the ability to challenge disciplinary actions before an arbitrator.
Aitchison also claims that the decertification could have the unintended consequence of making rank-and-file officers wary of pursuing promotions for supervising jobs in which they could be fired at will. Mayor Hales seeks to downplay the risks by claiming that supervising officers in the Oregon State Police are not unionized, but promotions are not a problem. Furthermore, Hales claims that, even without an arbitrator, the city’s police commanders could still challenge disciplinary actions taken against them before the Portland civil service board.
Portland’s Employment Relations Board will come to a decision on this matter after an administrative judge conducts a hearing and files a recommendation with the Board. Portland’s public employees would do well to keep track of this story in the coming weeks; the recommendations and ruling may have a significant effect on whether the mayor pursues similar measures for other public employee unions.
If you or your union has faced difficulty asserting your collective bargaining rights, please contact one of our attorneys to help guide your case.