LCPD On Strike!
It remains the longest police strike in USA history and it occurred right here in Las Cruces, NM, nearly fifty years ago. At the stroke of midnight on February 3, 1976, 51 police officers and one sergeant walked off the job in protest over working conditions, pay and benefits (LCPD was less than half its size then, with 80 total officers from Chief to patrol officer). In the hours and days that followed, they would be joined by members of the LCFD (47 firefighters, including three lieutenants), civilian police department employees (including dispatchers: LCPD had its own communications division) and other municipal workers.
To discern why nearly all of the rank and file of a law enforcement agency sworn to serve and protect went on strike, it is necessary to understand the labor movement of the 1960s and 1970s and how that related to the public sector. Labor strikes of that era were record-setting and involved millions of people. In 1970 there were 5,716 major strikes across the country; in 1974, 6,074 work stoppages; between those two years the strikes numbered higher than 5,000 annually; in the year LCPD officers walked off the job 5,648 labor strikes occurred nationwide.
Nearly every occupation imaginable was involved at one time or another during those years, many more than once: miners, truckers, farm laborers, postal workers, UPS employees, airline mechanics, teachers, automobile plant workers, sanitation workers, steelworkers, the communications sector (AT&T was hard hit), garment workers (including Farah in Texas and New Mexico, a two-year strike. Farah was the second-largest employer in the state of Texas and women made up 85% of its workforce), bus drivers, construction workers and virtually anyone protesting labor conditions on a current union contract, or, like LCPD & FD, those in the public sector seeking collective bargaining status.
Prior to the Las Cruces strike, police departments in San Francisco, Tucson, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Baltimore, New York City, Waukegan, IL, and other cities, large and small, had participated in walkouts or slowdowns, usually in the form of "blue flu" sick calls where entire shifts failed to show for work because of "illness." Sometimes those sick-outs were for a 24-hour period but more often lasted days and were a precursor to the strikes.
Efforts to unionize in Las Cruces began with the firefighters. LCFD formed the Las Cruces Firefighters Association (LCFA) in early 1975 and petitioned the city commission for the right to be the bargaining agent for LCFD rank and file (it was a city "commission" with "commissioners" then, and it later became a "council" with "councilors"). The LCFA met officially and unofficially with the mayor and commissioners over a period of months, describing a dissatisfaction with what they called an ineffective grievance procedure, incompetency at the supervision and management levels, insufficient training and lack of overall professionalism. Two attempts by the LCFA to be recognized were denied by the commission but with the second refusal came good news: the city commission said they would draft procedures for establishing recognition.
That was a lie. The commission stalled for months, and it became apparent that city officials had no intention of approving any collective bargaining efforts.
LCPD had similar complaints: inconsistent discipline, overall lack of professionalism, high attrition rate, favoritism, lack of recognition for superior performance, an ineffective grievance procedure which existed on paper but not in reality, alleged corruption, and lack of in-service training. Both PD and FD listed pay and fringe benefits as inadequate, but also made it clear that pay and benefits were a secondary concern (in the case of LCPD, the officers had a legitimate argument. Las Cruces was then, and still is today, the second largest city in the state; however, LCPD in 1976 was 12th in starting pay at $535 per month. Even the small town of Truth or Consequences had a higher starting salary for a cop. After one year on the job, the LCPD salary statewide ranked 8th at $621 monthly. Officers also had to buy their own firearm, gun belt and handcuffs, which in that era cost roughly $300. As far as departmental size, what is true today was also true then: LCPD is the fourth largest law enforcement agency in the state behind Albuquerque PD, NM State Police and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department).
LCPD officers initially wanted the Fraternal Order of Police to back their effort to form a collective bargaining unit. That didn't happen. The national FOP told the president of Las Cruces Lodge #8 that it would be a period of time before they could be of assistance, and when they did come to help it would be at the expense of lodge members. After receiving that information, the Las Cruces Police Employees Association (LCPEA) was formed. It was opened to all LCPD employees and within two weeks 58 of the 80 sworn in the department were members in addition to civilian workers.
Unable to come to terms with the national FOP, the LCPEA reached out to the International Conference of Police Associations. ICPA sent its secretary-treasurer Robert Gordon, an Albuquerque police detective who had participated in the 1975 Albuquerque police strike. Gordon told the LCPEA that the ICPA had never lost a strike, and offered resources and strategies to help win a collective bargaining agreement. After consideration, the LCPEA turned him down. The leadership felt they understood local issues better than outsiders and could communicate them to the city commission without the help of ICPA. They did not want to strike.
The LCPEA formed committees to study three areas of concern: the retirement plan, insurance and salaries. They also planned to bring departmental problems to the attention of the public by speaking with civic, educational and political groups. The LCPEA president, Rick Van Alstine, and vice-president Rick Erdie, had spoken to some city commissioners regarding problems in the police department and their desire for change. In January 1976 Van Alstine arranged a meeting with the city manager through then-Chief A.F. "Tony" Gomez to discuss problems within the LCPD. It did not go well.
The city manager at that time was Harold Yungmeyer. His attitude during the meeting was described as indifferent to perceived problems within LCPD and he appeared irritated at the presence of the two officers. He told them that if they didn't like the way the city was run they could leave and go elsewhere. Van Alstine and Erdie had come into the meeting focused not on money, but on working conditions. However, they had not brought a list of grievances and Yungmeyer, thinking their presence was solely financial, told the officers that the city budget was inflexible and the most that could be offered was a 5% pay increase (a cost of living increase which had already been scheduled for all city employees). Van Alstine and Erdie left the meeting believing that the city had no intention of considering the concerns of the LCPEA.
Backs Against The Wall
Word of city manager Yungmeyer's stance spread quickly throughout the police department. Already low morale plummeted. LCPD personnel felt that no one in city government cared about them. In addition to Yungmeyer's actions, LCPEA leadership felt that the commissioners made aware of problems in the LCPD were not wiling to negotiate for change (the same experience the firefighters had). LCPEA leadership called a meeting to reconsider ICPA as their bargaining agent. Membership unanimously approved and subsequently changed its name to Las Cruces Police Officers Association, a requirement of ICPA that all members be sworn officers. The civilians who were part of LCPEA were allowed to remain within LCPOA.
"We've got our backs against the wall," LCPOA President Rick Van Alstine told the media. "If the commissioners won't listen to us, we don't know what else to do. We've gone all the way down the line trying to work within the system."
On January 13, 1976, ICPA union rep Gordon sent a letter through the city manager to the members of the city commission announcing the organization's intent to represent the LCPOA as its collective bargaining agent. They would be at the weekly city commission meeting scheduled for February 2, 1976. The letters were sent through Yungmeyer to comply with chain-of-command protocol. That was a mistake. Some of the commissioners never received the notice. One can only speculate as to the reason why those letters were never delivered, but by the time of the city commission meeting of February 2, tension between LCPOA and city leaders was strained to the breaking point.
February 2, 1976
The weekly Las Cruces City Commission meeting began with a large crowd. Over 200 people, including on-duty and off-duty police officers, firefighters, their families and media crowded into the small chamber (at that time, city hall was located at Church Street and Las Cruces Avenue, across the street from the main post office). After the meeting got underway and items unrelated to the LCPOA were being discussed, an unidentified member of the crowd shouted out that everyone there knew why the meeting was packed and the commission should get on with the business of recognizing the LCPOA.
The commission immediately changed the venue and invited public input regarding the POA. The first speaker was POA president Van Alstine, who told the commission that his presence there was to seek recognition of the association. He then turned the microphone over to Gordon. Gordon briefed the commission on who he represented, the role of ICPA and the collective bargaining process. Mayor Munson told him this was the first any of them had heard, formally or informally, about the POAs desire to be recognized. That was a disingenuous statement. He and other commissioners had known for months what a simmering pot the LCPD and FD were, and at least a few of the commissioners received the letter sent to Yungmeyer on January 13. It is difficult to believe that there would not have been some discussion amongst commissioners about the purpose of the LCPOA at the February 2 commission meeting, as it had to have been on the agenda.
POA vice-president Erdie took the podium and told the mayor about the meeting he and Van Alstine had with the city manager, stating "...quite frankly he did not leave us any hope. Money is a big issue, but it is not the only issue..."
The commissioners did not appear to be sympathetic to the concerns of the officers. Commissioner Marianne Thaeler said the POA was being "naive" regarding the city's ability to acquire funds for more pay, and that she would rather see more people hired and on the job than fewer people at a higher salary. Commissioner Blanco said the POA was being "rash" considering it was their first time in front of the commission. And the other commissioners agreed with him when he said giving police officers more money was unfair to other city employees.
Munson uttered another disingenuous statement by proclaiming that of all city departments, the PD received the lion's share of funding. While true of nearly all cities, that doesn't mean that the bulk of the funds were going into the bank accounts of the cops. As one officer said at the podium before the night was finished: "It's hard to take 'devotion to duty' out of the icebox and put it between two slices of bread and feed it to your children."
Commissioner Taylor said that approving a collective bargaining agreement for the POA meant that it would have to be done for any group of employees that wanted to organize. He proposed that any draft include language that would set forth under what guidelines, such as percentage of employees signed up, would provide for automatic recognition of a bargaining unit. Taylor said that he would abstain on a direct vote, which drew the ire of the crowd.
It was then that something remarkable happened. The city attorney spoke and informed the commission that he had three model recognitions in hand for approving collective bargaining, and city manager Yungmeyer told him to be quiet! As the meeting progressed, Yungmeyer actually turned in his swivel chair and faced the wall in obvious contempt of the police officers voicing their concerns! The crowd became increasingly disruptive and hostile. Gordon from the ICPA said that "the group is tired of hearing promises made by elected officials who have not kept them."
Just before the two-hour meeting ended, the commissioners unanimously voted to draft an ordinance to look at procedures for recognition. Members of the LCPOA did not believe they were being sincere. Months earlier, the commission had promised firefighters the same deal and nothing had been done. People began shouting back and forth and the situation became uglier. One officer shouted at Commissioner Taylor, regarding his earlier statement to abstain from voting, "Next time you need help I hope you won't get me, because I won't help!"
The meeting culminated with Mayor Munson addressing ICPA representative Gordon: "You are an expert! You have done a beautiful job as an outsider! You have succeeded in polarizing both sides!"
Gordon responded, "You are not going to have a police force tomorrow morning!"
POA members left city hall and traveled to the FOP lodge (the lodge was a building on N. Solano, northwest of Apodaca Park on the west side of Solano, just north of Madrid St. It remained a lodge until the 1980s when it was forced to close due to embezzlement by a civilian bookkeeper. The FOP did not have money for the rent or bills. That building later became Victoria's, a bar with a Mexican theme. When Victoria's closed the building was torn down and today it is an empty lot).
Emotions were still very high at the lodge. Options such as "blue flu" and a work slowdown were discussed, but most cops were focused on striking. The association's attorney, future NM attorney general Patricia Madrid, said there were no New Mexico statutes governing police strikes. ICPAs Gordon did not suggest that the POA go on strike but he didn't discourage it, either (his earlier statement at the city commission meeting to Munson about not having a police department in the morning reflected that). He predicted that if they did strike, city administration would be forced to deal with the POA after just two days. Collectively, they felt that the commission's promise to draft an ordinance was just a stalling tactic and they saw no other option to their predicament. A motion to strike was officially put on the record and an alphabetical list of cops in attendance was produced to vote aye or nay.
With the exception of a few who abstained, the vote was to strike. There were no nay votes recorded. Members of the media who had been waiting outside were called in and told that LCPD officers would no longer be on the job beginning at midnight. What cops believed would be a situation that would force elected officials to deal with their grievances within a short period of time would turn into the longest continuous strike in the history of policing.
The following morning at 8 A.M. the fire department went on strike, as did many LCPD civilian employees. Two fire substations were closed and fire cadets three weeks into the academy were ordered to help man the stations still open. The few fire and police personnel who had not struck, primarily supervisors, were put on 12-hour shifts with no days off. The sheriff's department and state police helped patrol the city, and volunteer fire departments were contacted by the city manager and asked to assist in case of emergency.
Within one week the situation got worse for city leaders. On February 10, 41% of the city's blue collar workers went on strike and sanitation and utilities services had to be suspended. That meant that over half of the city's employees were out on strike. Two days after the blue collar workers walked off the job, the Brotherhood of Railroad and Airline Clerks and the AFSCME, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees began efforts to organize all city employees not affiliated with the police and fire strike. Within a week of that, a majority of city employees had joined AFSCME, which then demanded recognition from the city.
The raucous commission meeting on the night of February 2 had played out in a manner no one in city hall could have predicted. Departmental heads and city hall did not think for one minute that their cops and firemen would go on strike.In the next thirty days, things would get a lot uglier.
Next week: Part II of the LCPD/FD strike.
(Note: the longest strike in police history occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1981, and lasted 53 days. That strike was regarding pay and benefits on an existing contract. However, several days after the strike began, two young girls went missing and police officers dropped their picket signs and went back to work to assist in locating them. Within a few days, one girl was found alive but the other, a five-year-old, was found murdered. A serial sex offender was arrested and later convicted of the crime. Shortly after the girl's body was found, the Halifax police went back on strike. The LCPD strike in 1976 remains the longest continuous police strike ever recorded).