San Antonio Election Will Test Police Union Power This Saturday

If Proposition B passes, police would no longer have the upper hand at the bargaining table. Advocates say union contracts have allowed police brutality to go unpunished.

James Russell   |    April 26, 2021

Signs for Proposition B in San Antonio. (Fix SAPD / Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

If Proposition B passes, police would no longer have the upper hand at the bargaining table. Advocates say union contracts have allowed police brutality to go unpunished.

For decades, San Antonio’s police union has served as a national model for winning outsize salaries and benefits, instating policies that shield officers from accountability, and aggressively building political power to silence elected officials who question these conditions. But that playbook may be nearing its final chapter this week as the Texas city’s residents consider a ballot initiative that would rescind the union’s collective bargaining rights.

Last year, local ABC affiliate KSAT produced an investigative series about the city police department’s unusually high rate of officers who, despite being disciplined and fired, were ultimately reinstated. Since 2010, about two-thirds of fired officers have rejoined the force.

Some of the stories caused nationwide outrage, including that of Matthew Luckhurst, who was fired in 2016 for giving a homeless man a feces sandwich. His lawyers got him his job back. Lee Rakun, another officer, was reinstated six times despite being fired for behavior that included posting a bigoted epithet on social media, verbal harassment of an off-duty constable, abandoning his post for personal reasons, and even beating three women, including a girlfriend.

In these cases, it was provisions in the San Antonio Police Association’s contract that enabled officers who committed egregious acts to return to work.

The findings spurred local activists to found the police reform advocacy group Fix SAPD

“We took a deeper dive into the [KSAT] report and saw throughout the country that there’s a problem among officers who have grounds termination but stay on the force,” said Oji Martin, one of Fix SAPD’s founders. “If you look at each officer who killed an individual, there were some instances where they were reprimanded. But a consistent theme involved arbitration in the union contracts. That’s when we looked at the San Antonio Police Officers Association’s contract.”

Now Fix SAPD is campaigning to repeal the laws that enable the union’s disproportionate advantage in contract negotiations. Their first test comes in the city election on Saturday with a ballot referendum, Proposition B.

“Our primary question is why is it so hard for officers to be fired and held accountable for their actions? It went from a simple question to a ballot initiative,” said Ananda Tomas, Fix SAPD’s deputy director.

If passed, Proposition B would repeal Chapter 174 of the state government code, which allows police and firefighter unions to collectively bargain with the city. San Antonio is one of the few major Texas cities where police use collective bargaining. Without collective bargaining, San Antonio police could instead use the meet-and-confer process, similar to Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. Fix SAPD supports this alternative because it doesn’t involve binding arbitration, which gives the police union substantial leverage. It also would pave the way for San Antonio residents to be able to vote on the police contract if they don’t agree with the terms. “There should be civilian oversight,” Martin said. “We should be able to have a say. Currently they can do what they want, and we are left at a disadvantage. We can watch the process, but we want to do more than watch.”

To get there, Proposition B would need to pass, and then the group would have to go through another petition drive to repeal Chapter 143 of the state code, which Tomas described as a “law enforcement bill of rights.” It includes provisions on hiring, firing, and public records that give police lopsided benefits.

“It’s a braided system, booby-trapped with barriers. You have to repeal one to repeal the other,” Martin said.

The current police union contract is set to expire at the end of September and negotiations over a new contract are underway. If Proposition B passes, negotiators will have to start all over again; wages, healthcare, and disciplinary procedures will be up for discussion with fewer strictures limiting what the city can do.

This would be a significant change for the union. Its strength has been entrenched since the 1980s when it adopted the tactics of a zealous former police officer turned union organizer, Ron DeLord, who is now nationally recognized for the playbook he developed in Texas. Intimidation is central to the strategy he has promoted; a recent New York Times profile of DeLord notes that in the 1980s, the San Antonio police union sent an Easter basket with a dead rat in it to a City Council member who wanted to cut police costs. DeLord is the chief negotiator for the San Antonio Police Officers Association and lately he has softened his approach; he told the Times that unions need to compromise or else seem “tone deaf” to communities that are calling for change.

But Martin says the power dynamic won’t shift unless Proposition B passes. “The union has a playbook to push back on any efforts [by the City Council] to fix the contract. They could recruit a candidate against an incumbent or withhold funds,” she said.

The overwhelming influence of police unions has become commonplace across the country. Simon Balto, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Iowa, said that beginning in the 1960s, police unions went from largely typical labor bargaining groups to political machines attached to the New Right movement. “They weren’t involved in formal electoral politics,” he said. But with the emergence of the culture wars, police found a common ally in conservative Republicans who promoted law and order––the type of messaging that still endears police to people across the political spectrum.”

Proposition B could signal a turning point away from this long history. Jon Taylor, a professor and chair of the department of political science and geography at The University of Texas at San Antonio, thinks Prop B supporters have a chance, given the national dialogue on policing.

“Frankly, if the last year of police-related issues has taught us anything, it’s the notion that a police department with bad officers that can’t get rid of them isn’t going to be strong, capable, community-connected, or well-trained. If the police union can’t concede that there is a need to fire officers for misconduct permanently, then San Antonio voters might be more inclined to vote ‘yes,’” he said.

Fix SAPD’s campaign differentiates police unions from other unions, and highlighting the disciplinary component of contract negotiations is key to their argument. “They are using discipline as a bargaining chip to get whatever they want.” Tomas said. “Normal unions don’t bargain that way. Collective bargaining is a tool for civil rights. [Police officer associations] are using it as a tool against civil rights and the oppressed.”

The San Antonio Police Officers Association did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal: Political Report.

The Fix SAPD campaign is shining light on the nationwide debate about police unions’ role in the labor movement. Last year, the Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council, the central labor organization for the Seattle metropolitan area, expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Labor Notes called it a test of police unions’ place within labor organizing.

But national labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, have overall declined activists’ demands to reject police unions. In response to Proposition B, state and local labor leaders are not backing down. The San Antonio Central Labor Council opposes the ballot initiative.

“Police unions aren’t opposed by people on the center-left,” Balto said. “Democrats aren’t going to bash them even though the unions bash Democrats.” This may be why recent polling shows a tight race.

Taylor says it’s a toss-up. “Municipal elections are notorious for low turnout in Texas—particularly on a Saturday. While there is a pretty good-sized coalition of proponents for Prop B, there are also some strong union groups who are good at mobilizing and may very well make the difference. If the limited polling is any indicator, Prop B has a chance to pass,” he said.

The debate over Proposition B is shaping other races on the ballot, which includes mayoral and City Council elections. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who is facing former Councilmember Greg Brockhouse in a rematch from his 2019 race, is taking no official stance on the measure, while voicing general support for collective bargaining. Brockhouse, who is trying to shed his image as a right-wing pundit accused by multiple partners of domestic violence, is vociferously opposed to Proposition B and has attacked Nirenberg on the matter. Councilmember Roberto Treviño, who is also up for re-election, is the only incumbent to declare his support for the reform. But momentum may pick up now that former mayor and presidential candidate Julián Castro has spoken out in favor of Proposition B.

“By voting yes on Proposition B, we’re supporting good faith negotiations between police and the community they serve,” Castro said in a video posted on Twitter. “I’m all for paying officers what they deserve, but accountability for bad officers doesn’t belong at the bargaining table. When bad officers act out, they should face the consequences, and that should be non-negotiable.”