Everybody realized Nashville police were making a statement when they overwhelmingly elected the Teamsters last month to be their agents in labor negotiations with the city. Nobody brings in a union known for bullying tactics, mob ties, violence and corruption, expecting it to soft-pedal demands.
At the same time, what can be expected of labor negotiators in an employment-at-will state like Tennessee, where union activism died in the early 1960s?
It hasn’t taken long to find out. After winning the union vote, the Teamsters moved quickly to block the city from implementing a controversial change in the department’s promotion system. Officers weren’t happy that the city gave them a week’s notice to respond to the change, which will allow Chief Ronal Serpas to choose candidates for promotion from among a handful of top performers. Under the present system, the department must promote officers in order from an officer list based on test scores, experience, seniority and a management assessment evaluation. Allowing Serpas to handpick candidates would invite cronyism, some officers allege, in the exact same way the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s promotion system has invited favoritism and turmoil at the state level.
To delay the proposal, the Teamsters filed a restraining order against the city’s civil service commission earlier this month. And though Chancery Court judge Claudia Bonnyman denied the order—which Metro officials quickly hailed as a victory—she also chastised the city for treating officer input as a cursory function, a formality Metro government didn’t have to listen to, saying such a lighthearted attitude amounted to “fighting words.”
A few weeks before the hearing, the Teamsters outed the doctor who performs annual physicals on officers, pointing to federal court documents that show he has a substance abuse problem. Officers have been unhappy that annual examinations must be performed by Dr. Christopher Fletcher instead of their own doctors. They distrust Fletcher, since he’s paid by the city. In early March, the Teamsters went public with federal court documents that show Fletcher has twice been convicted of writing oxycodone prescriptions for himself. Police point out that the terms of his probation, which runs through 2011, say he can’t be an informer for any law enforcement agency.
But even before the Teamsters were elected to represent officers, there were signs the stakes had been ratcheted way up—much further than the previous union, the Fraternal Order of Police, was willing to go. In December, the Teamsters asked Chief Serpas to take a polygraph and voice stress test, like every officer in the city must do before being sworn in. Serpas, who likes to think of himself as an officer’s officer, vowing to wear his uniform each day he’s on duty (instead of wearing plain clothes, like some chiefs), declined the Teamsters’ invitation, saying he wanted no further contact with the union.
Unfortunately for Serpas, he’ll be seeing a lot of Teamster Local 327, which represents 1,700 Middle Tennessee workers, mostly warehousemen and auto-haulers. Negotiations with his department will be handled by a small group of Teamsters, including the local’s president and business manager, Jimmy Neal (who’s been with Local 327 for 12 years), attorney Jack Byrd and Metro officer Steve Bumpus, who joined the Nashville force in 1981, was assigned to the district attorney’s office for 10 years, and is now a downtown bike patrolman.
The Teamsters will focus on three major goals: they want better police pensions, they want the department to reform its disciplinary procedure, and they want officers’ annual physicals to be performed by their own doctors instead of Dr. Fletcher.
The pensions will likely be the most contentious issue. For one thing, the city has most of the leverage in dealing with officers, who can’t strike and whose endorsement isn’t as coveted among city council candidates as are endorsements from firefighters and the Service Employees International Union, which represents lower-wage workers like janitors and maintenance crews. Both firefighters and the SEIU are valuable to city council members because they volunteer time during campaigns, doing grunt work like planting yard signs and stuffing envelopes.
For another thing, collective bargaining is such a non-issue that the city doesn’t even call discussions with employee groups “negotiations.” The city’s human resource staff calls them “information exchanges.” The city had no contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, but a “memorandum of understanding.” The 3 percent pay increase police “won” last year? It was good only if “funds were available,” according to the memo of understanding.
Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to fathom the Teamsters winning more money for police pensions. Last year, the FOP asked for a benefits package that included a 20-year retirement clause at 45 percent of salary, which escalated to 75 percent for officers retiring at 30 years. Dorothy Shell-Berry, head of Metro’s human resources department, and Ron Deardorff, her second in command, took the request to Mayor Bill Purcell’s office, where it promptly was quashed. The proposal was estimated to have cost the city an additional $22 million, which the Metro government couldn’t digest without an additional property tax increase, Purcell’s administration claims.
What more can the Teamsters do to force the city’s hand? Ironically, a union once run by a shyster named Jimmy Hoffa—a felon believed to have been killed by the mob when he disappeared in 1975—says it needs to find a kindler, gentler message to win over Nashville’s populace.
“We need to show the public we’re not the bogeyman,” says bike officer Steve Bumpus, who was speaking as much about the Teamsters as he was about policemen. “We’re your neighbors, your brothers, sisters. We sit in church next to you. The mayor and Chief Serpas are not any more concerned about public safety than we are.”
City officials, for their part, seem unfazed by the Teamsters’ arrival at what, in more pro-labor areas, would be considered a bargaining table. “Their public persona is perhaps a gruff, in-your-face approach,” says Shell-Berry, head of the HR department, who’s been in two meetings with the Teamsters thus far. “They’re not really like that. I’ve not had one issue with them.”
How long that can last is anyone’s guess.