The Union Fight That Defined Beto O’Rourke’s City Council Days

Walker Bragman:

At the height of the conflict, O’Rourke publicly mused about disbanding the police union, calling it “out of control” and lamenting his colleagues’ unwillingness to stand up to the powerful political force. A year later, he was calling for “better checks on collective bargaining in the public sector.”

The fight came at one of the bleakest moments of the Great Recession, and the city was stuck in contracts with the police and firefighters unions that provided for annual raises and benefits. The city manager was proposing a 5 percent property tax increase and other hikes in fees to pay for them, but the city council wanted the unions to defer some of the wage increases and forfeit some of the holidays. The Firemen and Policemen’s Pension Fund was in need of more money, which meant they were open to negotiations, but O’Rourke was frustrated at how dug in he said they were.

Police unions have increasingly found themselves in conflict with progressive Democrats in cities across the country, and are notorious for defending even the worst officers on the force against charges of assault or murder. Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s spokesperson, said that when he relayed The Intercept’s inquiry to O’Rourke, O’Rourke’s first memory of the fight was that police were demanding a provision that would give officers a 48-hour window after a police shooting before they would have to answer an investigator’s questions. That provision is indeed in the contract; O’Rourke’s remarks at the time, however, were focused on officer compensation and El Paso’s strapped budget.

O’Rourke, in public, took particular exception to some of the demands from the police union in the ongoing negotiations, including its continued insistence on maintaining the wage increases, which he said amounted to 8 percent each year. In an August 3, 2010, meeting, a seemingly exasperated O’Rourke went so far as to ask the city’s attorney if there was a way to eliminate the union altogether.

“In my opinion, the basic problem with this whole setup is you’ve got a very powerful police union that’s been able to extract an unsustainable increase in salaries year over year and an unsustainable series of additional benefits,” he said, following an exchange over the city manager’s proposal to create a second police academy. “What are the provisions or opportunities for the voters of El Paso to go back to some other form of representation for the police officers?”

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