Newly certified petition changes the dynamic of contract talks with San Antonio’s police union

click to enlarge Newly certified petition changes the dynamic of contract talks with San Antonio’s police union
James Dobbins
Police accountability activists landed a big win last week when the city confirmed that they’d secured enough signatures to let San Antonio voters decide in May whether to repeal the police union’s collective bargaining power.

In the nearer term, that victory could also reshape the upcoming negotiations on a new contract between the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and the city of San Antonio.

“This is probably the worst possible time for [SAPOA] to get real aggressive with the city,” said Gerald Reamey, a St. Mary’s University law professor who studies police issues.

“If people who watch this process see the police union acting in ways that make them think that [SAPOA] are not willing to negotiate in good faith … then [the union] run the real risk that they’re no longer going to have the power to negotiate,” he added.

The city and SAPOA will open negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on February 12, starting a 60-day clock for the sides to approve a new contract.

San Antonio residents will then vote in May whether San Antonio police officers should retain the right they currently have to collectively bargain.

Reading the record

Reamey, who has advised police departments, said SAPOA leadership likely sees the loss of collective bargaining power as an “existential threat.” That should push the union to find middle ground with the city.

But, given SAPOA’s track record, activists aren’t so sure that it will.
Some police accountability advocates had hoped a change in SAPOA’s leadership might bring the two sides closer together. However, they say new union president Juan “Danny” Diaz has so far shown little willingness to compromise on issues of officer discipline and accountability.

In a statement released after verification of the petition, Diaz criticized an alleged “lack of transparency” on the part of Fix SAPD, the group that spearheaded the petition effort, and promised to fight for the union’s collective bargaining rights.

“SAPOA plans on working hard between now and election day to inform voters about how important collective bargaining (Chapter 174) is to recruiting top-notch police officers who will keep our neighborhoods safe, and to ensuring the police chief and the city continue to have flexibility in hiring, promotions, discipline, and boosting diversity within the department,” he said.

Josey Garcia, a founding member and leader of the community group Reliable Revolutionaries, said Diaz and SAPOA appear to be taking an adversarial approach to both the collective bargaining and the upcoming election campaign.

“I want to be optimistic and say that I hope that they will come to the table and come to a middle ground so that we can make it work for everybody, but what I will think will happen, based on what we’ve been seeing so far, I believe they’re intending to fight this all the way through,” she said.

Ananda Tomas, deputy director of Fix SAPD, agreed.

“I think that if [SAPOA] really wants to say that they are accountable to the public and back up their words with their action, then absolutely, they should [compromise with the city],” she said. “But I can’t hope for it based on the history of their behavior.”

‘Stories of retribution’

Reform advocates are gearing up for the coming campaign — distancing themselves from calls to defund the police and arguing that progress on discipline issues will benefit both good officers and the city’s relationship with its police force.

Some two-thirds of SAPD officers fired over the past 10 years have ended up back on the force due to an arbitration process guaranteed under the union’s current contract.

Garcia, who served in the Air Force, said some police officers and their families actually signed the petition to repeal SAPOA’s collective bargaining rights.

“We’ve had testimonies from several police officers and families of police officers that have shared stories of retribution against them when they were accused of going against the thin blue line when it comes to reporting their fellow officers for abuses,” she said.

Indeed, at the height of nationwide police accountability protests last summer, SAPD Chief William McManus said collective bargaining plays a role in “protecting bad officers.” However, he’s since backtracked and said he’s not completely opposed to the process.

Garcia said that if SAPOA takes a hardline stance on discipline issues during contract negotiations, that will be an indictment of the union’s power.

“What is concerning to us as advocates for accountability is how hard they’re fighting to not be held accountable,” she said. “Because in any other job, when a boss fires an individual for wrongdoing, that individual generally stays fired.”

Whether SAPOA gives any ground on discipline issues in collective bargaining, the looming referendum on the police union’s collective bargaining power will give voters a direct say on how they want their police department run.

“[SAPOA] are not concerned about justice,” said longtime civil rights leader and former city council member Mario Salas. “They want to continue things the way that they’re going. And if that’s what they want to do, then we’ll see them at the ballot box.”

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