AP Photo/Eric Gay

In San Antonio, Police Reformers Square Off with the Cops’ Union

A proposal to end collective bargaining, on the ballot May 1, aims to spur police accountability in Texas’ second-largest city.

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In the heat of last summer’s uprisings over the killing of George Floyd, a small group of San Antonians, with little experience in criminal justice reform, hatched a plan to turn protest into policy. They looked at their city, where police officers fired for misconduct routinely wind up back on the force, where civilian oversight is toothless, and where tortuous contract negotiations five years ago concluded without serious reforms. And they looked at the local police union, notorious for its bare knuckle political attacks on any city leader who crossed them. The problem, the activists decided, was that the union had turned its contract into a shield against officer accountability, and politicians were too afraid to pierce it. 

Calling themselves Fix SAPD, the group began gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would revoke the San Antonio police union’s ability to collectively bargain, the mechanism that allows the union to negotiate directly with the city over everything from wages to firing protocols, and reach legally binding contracts. Nationwide, workers in the private sector generally have a right to collective bargaining, a crowning achievement of the labor movement dating back to the New Deal-era, but the situation varies by state for public employees. In Texas, state law gives police and firefighters—and no other public workers—access to collective bargaining, but local voters can bestow and revoke the right. San Antonians granted their cops bargaining in 1974; now they’ll get the chance to reverse that decision.  

In January, Fix SAPD submitted the 20,000 signatures necessary to get their initiative, now called Proposition B, on the May 1 ballot. If successful, San Antonio would become the first major Texas city to revoke collective bargaining for police. Doing so, Fix SAPD says, is essential to empowering civilians and holding bad officers accountable.

“This is about the community being able to have a stronger voice in policing,” says Fix SAPD’s Deputy Director Ananda Tomas. “This is the only way that we can have a say over policing in our city and create a contract that has better community oversight, that has less officers fired and brought back, that has a disciplinary system that works.”

In launching their campaign, Fix SAPD joined a growing chorus of criticism of police unions—from the left and right—as barriers to reform and protectors of reckless and violent cops. In Austin, activists squared off with the local union in 2017, even causing officers to work without a contract for a year, and ultimately won significant reforms. Last year, Washington, D.C. stripped their police union of the right to bargain over disciplinary matters. Activists have also pushed, unsuccessfully, for the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, to break ties with police unions. 

On the other side, the San Antonio Police Officers Association predicts dire consequences for the department if Proposition B passes. Danny Diaz—who took over as union president in February for a controversial predecessor known for waging political war on the current mayor and police chief and downplaying an officer’s use of the N-word—has repeatedly said Prop B is a form of “defunding the police,” though the measure would not touch the department’s budget. Diaz claims the measure would result in broken-down police cars, officers unable to reach civilians in need, and the flight of good officers to other cities. 

Both sides have struggled to articulate simple, accurate messages about Prop B—likely because the measure’s ultimate impacts are complicated and uncertain. 

What’s clear is this: If the proposition passes, it will disrupt ongoing negotiations over the city’s next police contract. The city and the union have been in bargaining talks since early this year, with the current contract set to expire September 30. The union has already signaled it will meet one of the city’s key demands: that the chief be able to discipline officers for infractions within 180 days of becoming aware of an incident, rather than 180 days from the incident itself. In Austin, a similar time restriction stymied an investigation into a cop who body-slammed a Black elementary school teacher in 2015. 

The sides are still sparring over curtailing the power of third-party arbitrators—lawyers the union plays a role in selecting—who’ve overturned the firings of a number of city officers, including one who gave a homeless man a feces sandwich. And there’s been no progress on a top priority for Fix SAPD: the creation of an empowered civilian oversight system similar to that recently enacted in Austin. San Antonio’s current oversight body, created by the police union contract, is compromised by a lack of independence and little access to law enforcement records, according to a Rice University report.

The police union’s chief negotiator, Ron DeLord, says the contract will not be finished by May 1 and, if Prop B passes, negotiations will screech to a halt and the contract will expire in September. What happens next is in dispute: The union thinks the current contract will remain in effect for up to eight years longer, thanks to a so-called evergreen clause, but the city has said that with collective bargaining gone, the clause would be null and the contract would fully terminate. That disagreement, says the union, might be litigated in court. 

Even if the contract does lapse, though, many of the policies Fix SAPD wants to change would actually remain in effect. Under state law, cops and firefighters have a baseline of employment protections. The statute specifies little about wages or benefits, but it includes both the third-party arbitration process and the unreformed 180-day rule. As with collective bargaining, the law must be enacted by local voters, which San Antonians did in 1947. Diaz, the union president, argues that reverting to the baseline protections would be a loss for all sides: Cops would see wages and equipment degrade, and any progress on reforms happening in current negotiations would go out the window.

But for Fix SAPD, it’s all part of a plan. For one thing, they hope to eventually gather the roughly 80,000 signatures needed to put the law that creates the baseline protections on the ballot as well, potentially pulling the safety net from under San Antonio’s cops. And, even if that effort never pans out, there’s another path forward. If collective bargaining is repealed, they hope San Antonio’s police will opt for an alternative system called “meet-and-confer”—a similar process, but one Fix SAPD thinks will be more amenable to reforms.

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In the 1990’s, when Charley Wilkison first went to work for the state’s largest police union, CLEAT, the union was stuck. Voters in much of the southern part of the state—including El Paso, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi—had approved collective bargaining for police, but officers struggled to break through north of Interstate 10. (Wilkison attributes this to a greater openness to unions among Texas Catholics than Baptists.) His solution? Give collective bargaining for cops a rebranding. Between the ‘90s and 2005, he helped pass a number of so-called meet-and-confer statutes, which can be enacted locally without an election by voters. Today, cities including Austin, Houston, and Dallas operate under meet-and-confer.

While collective bargaining mandates that the employer and union get together to hash out a contract, meet-and-confer merely allows it. But, in reality, the two processes have worked similarly for Texas cops, with both leading to legally binding agreements. Even Ron DeLord, who’s currently negotiating the San Antonio contract under collective bargaining and recently negotiated for the Austin police under meet-and-confer, says the processes are interchangeable. “There is no substantive difference between [Chapter] 174 collective bargaining and any meet-and-confer law,” Delord wrote in an email.

Fix SAPD, however, has identified a never-used provision within meet-and-confer. Unlike with collective bargaining, any meet-and-confer contract can be repealed by citizens through a petition and election process. In the laws’ nearly 30-year history, it’s never been done. But for Fix SAPD, the obscure provision represents a seat for the broader public at the negotiating table, which would pressure both the union and the city into reforming officer discipline more aggressively and quickly. 

Ejiro Pinnock, co-founder and board member of Fix SAPD, says he got the idea from reading a book by DeLord himself, who’s written extensively on police union history and strategy. 

“[DeLord] says to use elections as a flashpoint to put pressure on politicians to do what you want them to do. And I thought, well that’s interesting; there are two people who sign these contracts, the politicians and the union,” says Pinnock. “Would it be possible to use an election to apply the same amount of pressure to the union? And if we can do it for one contract, wouldn’t it be great if we could do it for all contracts in the future?”

For Pinnock’s strategy to have legs, San Antonians will have to pass Prop B, then the police union will have to muster majority support from officers to ask the city for meet-and-confer rights. Such requests can be approved by city council or, in rare cases, the voters. Once that happens, the union and the city can return to the negotiating table and resume haggling over everything from benefits to disciplinary matters. 

In all, Fix SAPD’s multi-pronged strategy depends on a consistent majority of San Antonio voters supporting complex efforts at police reform. And the group has already hit a roadblock in its coalition-building: They have the support of the influential advocacy group the Texas Organizing Project, but they’re being opposed by organized labor. The San Antonio Central Labor Council, a consortium of local unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, is campaigning against Prop B. Though a progressive minority of the Council pushed to stay neutral on the proposition, the majority decided to stand with the police union.

The Prop B debate is simple for Central Labor Council President Tom Cummins: “We support collective bargaining, so we’re against it,” he says. Cummins adds that he views Fix SAPD’s campaign as a potential threat to all of organized labor—although the San Antonio police union is not affiliated with the Council, and Cummins says he can’t recall a time the police union has helped out the city’s other unions.

Pinnock counters that his group’s proposal has nothing to do with attacking organized labor. He says they broadly support both workers and collective bargaining; after all, they even support police unions’ right to bargain under meet-and-confer. The issue here, he says, is with specific statutes in a specific city with a specific history. If Prop B passes, he hopes the rift will heal between his group and the local AFL-CIO going forward.

As for Prop B’s chances, that’s anyone’s guess. Earlier this month, public polling showed 34 percent in favor, 39 percent opposed, and 28 percent undecided.