Big cities across America are forcing employees to get vaccinated as part of their jobs, and many police unions are pushing back, driven by a mix of anti-vaccine ideology and principled disagreement over changing work rules on the fly.
Unions are availing themselves of their collecting bargaining rights to resist the mandates, citing laws and contract provisions that require employers to negotiate with unions when they want to change workplace rules.
Complicating negotiations is the lingering animosity that exists between elected officials and police unions in big cities. That tension existed before George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, and has been exacerbated by elected officials who want to rein in police spending and aggressive officers, and unions who feel they're being unfairly scapegoated for the actions of a few bad officers.
It's not clear how many unions across the country are pushing back against vaccine mandates but police unions from Seattle to Chicago to Baltimore have all resisted mandatory vaccines. There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, many of them with unionized work forces. Some unionized firefighters have also resisted vaccines or the reporting of vaccine status.
"We have to protect jobs. Whether it's one or a couple hundred. That's our mission here, to protect jobs. It's not vaccinated versus unvaccinated," said Mike Solan, president of the officers' union in Seattle. "It's about the mandate in and of itself is a problem and they need to bargain this. Jobs are on the line. That's our purpose as a union."
Coronavirus is leading cause of death for officers
Because vaccine mandates are instituted on a city-by-city basis, combined with disputes over reporting vaccine statuses, it's not possible to definitively know what percentage of the country's law enforcement officers have been vaccinated. However, in cities that are requiring officers to report their vaccination status, city leaders are finding that these vaccination rates are often lower than those of the public the officers serve.
About 70% of the Los Angeles Police Department's members have been vaccinated ahead of the city's deadline, but almost 80% of Los Angeles County's eligible population has received at least one dose. In New York City, 70% of police officers are vaccinated, compared to 72% of the city's overall population and 85% of all adults who have been vaccinated.
In Chicago, more than one third of the Chicago Police Department officers didn't disclose their vaccine status by the reporting deadline and the city is beginning to discipline those officers (more than 80% of those who reported their status were vaccinated).
The coronavirus has become the leading cause of death for officers despite law enforcement being among the first groups eligible to receive the vaccine at the end last year. The total stands at 483 Covid-19 related deaths since the beginning of 2020 through this October, compared to 101 from gunfire in the same period, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
On Wednesday, the mayor of New York City announced that city workers would be required to get vaccinated. Police and firefighters were already required, but were given an option to get regularly tested instead, and Wednesday's announcement removed the testing option. The city's two largest police unions — the Police Benevolent Association and Detectives' Endowment Association — both released statements saying they'd resist the mandate.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit policy and research organization, noted dozens of New York City police officers have died of Covid and another 10,000 were infected since the start of the pandemic.
"More cops will die of Covid than will get shot, stabbed, or die in car accidents," Wexler said. "This should be the one issue that labor and management sit down and say, what are we going to do to save cops lives, period. That's not happening."
Labor law generally favors employers
Withholding labor is a nuclear option that looms over nearly every labor dispute — except those with public safety unions. Cops and firefighters are typically forbidden from going on strike, either by law or by language in their contracts.
"We work now, grieve later," said Solan, the Seattle union president. Officers in Seattle are in a dispute with city leadership over its vaccine mandate, though Solan said the officers aren't opposed to vaccines. The Seattle Police Department is in the "separation process" with six employees who didn't comply with the mandate to either get vaccinated or seek an exemption. About 100 submitted requests for exemptions.
Labor law generally favors the employers, though cities and unions generally have to bargain over changes to workplace rules, said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor & Employment. Vaccine mandates would be considered a topic where bargaining is mandatory, Leroy said. But if the two sides bargain to a point where there is no more progress, cities can implement their policy and the union is forced to address it through courts or labor relations boards. But labor disputes, over the decades, have typically been for economic reasons, LeRoy said.
"I am very pro-vaccine and pro-public health," LeRoy said. "The labor law question is, you have to go through the process."
Laws for bargaining are different for public employees and can vary by state, said Bob Fetter, a labor lawyer in Detroit who represents employees and unions in disputes with employers. Laws can also differ by municipality, Fetter said. The union representing Detroit police officers could have different bargaining rights than a suburban police department or the Michigan State Police.
Tamara Lee, a labor professor at Rutgers University, said the law favors the employer when it comes to vaccines, and though it will likely be litigated, precedent is on the cities' side. She said cities could impose mandates but would still have to negotiate with unions over things related to the mandates (like acceptable proof of vaccination or time off to get the shots).
"In this political environment, we would expect this to be litigated to the highest level of the Supreme Court," Lee said. "With that said, it is unlikely that the union will prevail against the mandate with a defense limited to 'we are morally opposed to it' or 'it should be an individual worker right.' The law is full of decisions which favor the state or local mandate in those instances."
Police and firefighters in Chicago, where the dispute over vaccines is tied up in court and with the state's labor relations board, weren't always unionized. It took a work stoppage in the 1980s for firefighters to get their first contract, and their union president went to jail during that work stoppage. And since Floyd's death last summer, police unions and their bargaining rights have been under scrutiny from lawmakers and activists who hope to limit their power to protect officers.
The idea of solidarity isn't one unique to public safety unions. The group holding together, typically to earn some economic benefit for everyone, is a bedrock principle of organized labor. A statement from the Chicago police officers' union after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot filed a complaint against the union appealed to the notion of solidarity, asking officers to "hold the line."
"I can't say I'm surprised. Union brothers and sisters, it's part of their lore, their folkway," LeRoy said. "They communicate it to incoming people, and it really speaks to the tight-knit social culture that unions use, especially around striking. I don't view it as a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a thing."
'It should be a bargaining process'
In Chicago, the police are represented by John Catanzara, who as a police officer had a long history of disciplinary issues, including working a side job while on medical leave. The city is represented by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing has led to high senior staff turnover and difficult relationships with alderman and other city leaders.
Lightfoot and Catanzara traded personal insults over text messages last summer after officers were pelted with rocks and frozen water bottles while stopping protesters from tearing down a statue. And as the city's Oct. 15 deadline neared, Catanzara instructed members to not comply with a city order to fill out vaccine status information on a city website. Lightfoot said he was trying to "induce an insurrection" by telling members to disobey an order.
"Reasonable people can have differences when it comes to contractual issues," Wexler said. "... This is people talking past each other."
LeRoy said that things in Chicago have come down to this "ultimatum, and kind of 'eff you.' That's not collective bargaining," he said. "It shouldn't come to that. It should be a bargaining process."
Solan said officers in Seattle aren't by and large opposed to vaccines. As of Tuesday, 92% of the Seattle Police Department was vaccinated, according to the Seattle mayor's office. But a series of events over the last 18 months, starting with the Floyd murder in Minneapolis, have soured relations between city and police leaders.
Three weeks before Floyd was killed, the city of Seattle and the Department of Justice filed a motion in federal court to give notice that the police department had met all its reform benchmarks, and had been in compliance with those for two years.
After Floyd was killed, Seattle city officials passed a mid-year budget cut, and the city's police chief retired. The city council voted 8-1 to cut the department's budget, with the lone no vote because the cuts didn't go far enough.
Solan said more than 300 officers have left the police department because of "pandering" and "virtue signaling to the activist culture" in Seattle.
"You can imagine what that does to the human being, the police officer who just wants to serve. I have no interest in fighting the mayor, it doesn't do me any good. My interest is in fighting for jobs. But I will call out hypocrisy from elected officials using us as political punching bags. ... You can't treat employees like this."
Chain-of-command and obedience are strong parts of hiring, training, and culture so departments can trust an officer will follow a dangerous order. Insubordination isn't just frowned upon — it's often a fireable offense. Lightfoot's administration has called in non-compliant officers, had a supervisor give a direct order, and then placed those who disobey into no-pay status pending further discipline.
Wexler said the issue "begs for leadership," and it's not happening.
"People are exploiting this issue and cops are dying. Labor and management gotta step up," he said. "This issue is bigger than any of us. We would not be arguing if we were mandating cops wear seatbelts and body armor. This would not become political. It has become unnecessarily political while cops are dying."
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