The Longest Police Strike in U.S. History (Part II)
(This is the follow-up post to the original article which was published February 2. It is a summary of the LCPD police strike of 1976).
After police and firefighters walked off the job within hours of each other on February 3, 1976, and city blue collar workers did the same one week later, over half of the city of Las Cruces employees were on strike. City leaders were in a predicament. They had not thought for one minute that cops and firemen would strike much less be joined by others.
Nearly all of the LCPD rank-and-file and one sergeant had gone out on strike at midnight February 3. By 8 A.M. that morning they were on picket lines in front of the police department and city hall. Rules had already been established by strike leaders that no entrances or exits were to be blocked and they were not to carry firearms. The wives of many of the cops walked the picket line with their husbands, as did firefighters. Morale was high.
Media interviews with cops reflected the times: one cop said he was picketing because his wife was forced to work. "I'm not against a woman having a career if she wants it," he said. "But it's galling to my pride to know that we can't live on my salary alone and that my wife has to work." Another officer answered a reporter's question with a question of his own: how many members of the public know that many police officers actually qualify for food stamps because their wives cannot work and they are trying to support families on $651 per month? One officer, a military veteran, said he was turned down for a G.I. housing loan because he did not make enough money, and another said that after two years on the force he wasn't sure if he wanted to make LCPD a career because a fellow officer with five years of experience only made $2 more per paycheck.
Health insurance was another issue: one officer had paid $1000 out of pocket for the birth of his first child because the baby was delivered by cesarian section and the city's inadequate health insurance did not cover that. Another officer whose wife had recently given birth with no complications said he was forced to pay $200. What also angered all of them was the city saying they had no money for pay raises, but yet entertained a motion by Commissioner Thaeler to raise the compensation for a commissioner from $10 per meeting to $4,800 annually.
While the city fathers agreed that wages for municipal employees in general was bad, they still contended that there was no money for increased salaries. Even if they used what little funds they had, they argued, it would not be equitable to other city employees to only give the cops and firemen a raise. At the heart of the issue, city fathers said, was the city's inability to set its own ceilings on tax rates. Estimated city revenues would experience a nearly half-million dollar shortfall from the previous fiscal year and a new federal law had raised the minimum wage which affected upcoming contracts. While the city did generate fees for services, such as administration of the natural gas system and sanitation, the revenues from utilities were used to bolster the general fund with $300,000 transferred annually. That year, however, refuse collection ran a deficit of over $200,000. But the biggest problem, according to the city manager and mayor, were federal revenue sharing funds for ongoing operating expenses. They predicted a city budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year of one million dollars.
With all the city's arguments, however, none supported their failure, or outright refusal, to acknowledge the root cause of the strike: that police and fire collective bargaining was about more than salary. As POA President Rick Van Alstine put it: "We realize that the city might have budget problems and that any financial discussions would have to be held off until the end of the fiscal year. But there are other benefits we could have discussed between now and that time. We were ready to settle for recognition."
Van Alstine also asked for federal mediation, but the city refused. In the first several days of the strike, the only action taken by the city was to put out two memos: The first memo stated that the city sick leave policy would be strictly enforced; the second, directed at all police and fire personnel, warned that personnel absent from work without authorization would be placed on an inactive payroll and continued absences would subject them to disciplinary action. The city manager threatened to use a personnel policy that allowed him to terminate any employee who had five consecutive unauthorized absences. That information came to the cops and firemen with their Friday paychecks, four days after the strike began and the final checks they would receive.
Sitting On A Powder Keg
At the heart of the matter was fear and distrust of unions by city leaders. Commissioner Thaeler said the strike was "totally unfair...I don't think it was the proper action for the police...I'm sorry that a man from New York could come in and disrupt this city so." She was referring to International Conference of Police Associations Secretary-Treasurer Robert Gordon, an Albuquerque police detective. Said Mayor Munson: "Gordon is a sharp guy...our officers are getting in over their heads...the union sent in a sharp guy and he stampeded the troops." Munson also compared the strike to "a dirty book going through a girls' seminary--it causes a wave of immediate hysteria..." It was a ridiculous analogy. He went on to say that he didn't want to burn any bridges and he thought LCPD was a good force. "I only wish we could pay them what they deserve."
It was apparent that most elected officials and appointed city leadership just did not understand what the cops wanted first and foremost: recognition. Salary was an issue, but it was not at the forefront. Health benefits, retirement and a reformed grievance procedure were priorities.
One commissioner did get it. Five days into the strike, Commissioner Carlos Blanco tried to get city leaders together for a face-to-face meeting with strike leaders. He proposed a Saturday meeting at city hall but when he arrived no one was there and the building was locked up. Munson arrived a bit later. The mayor had informed the other commissioners the night before and they "frankly did not desire to do it (meet with the strikers)." At noon that day, strike leaders led a combination of police and firefighters to the mayor's residence in Telshor, where 70 strikers picketed. They asked again for a meeting with commissioners and Munson said no decision on recognition would be made while the group remained on strike.
Union officials described the refusal to meet as unresponsive and said the mayor and commissioners were "sitting on a powder keg." A last ditch effort at reconciliation was held at a restaurant on Sunday night, February 8, but no terms were reached.
By Monday morning, February 9, city manager Yungmeyer followed through on his pledge to fire those on strike. 65 police department employees, including 51 officers and a sergeant, along with 47 firefighters, had their employment terminated. They were given until February 18 to turn in their badges, uniforms and equipment. Commissioner Blanco criticized the city's actions, asking why people were being terminated if valid negotiations were ongoing. Munson would continue to pour gasoline on the fire.
That afternoon he met with strikers at the FOP lodge on N. Solano. He restated the commission's stance to not recognize the POA until they returned to work and continued to criticize their efforts to organize. He compared ICPAs Gordon to an encyclopedia salesman: "Right now, you feel great about the encyclopedia. But will you continue to feel good about it? Are unions the wave of the future or the last slosh of the past?"
The next day, 41% of the city's blue collar workforce went on strike. Two days later, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) began organizing all other non-emergency city workers. Within a week they were demanding recognition from the city. It was at this point that the city leaders contacted the Albuquerque law firm of Campbell, Cherpelis and Pica, which specialized in labor law.
George Cherpelis analyzed the situation and advised the commissioners that the way they handled the strike was going to have long-term ramifications for the city. He was critical of the personnel ordinance and called the grievance procedure "a monstrosity." Communication "was very poor up and down, not just down, between employees and supervisors. Grievances, real or imagined, it does not matter. Either one can precipitate problems."
A Final Attempt At Mediation
The leader of the firefighters, Jimmy Gomez, sought permission from the mayor and Van Alstine to work out a solution for all parties (police, fire, civilians) with a local federal director of jobs, who would act as mediator. Munson and Van Alstine agreed. Within 48 hours Gomez had a proposal that paired commissioners with union personnel to work out a solution for personnel ordinances and a collective bargaining agreement. Strikers would return to their jobs with no reprisals from either side and no loss of rank or pay grade. If the commission would recognize the employee groups as unions, they would place collective bargaining in abeyance until an ordinance was passed.
The commission turned it down. Commissioners Albert Johnson and Marianne Thaeler wanted more favorable conditions for the city, refused to recognize the unions, and wanted the police sergeant and three fire lieutenants demoted. The city manager ordered that vacancies in both departments be publicly advertised and city staff was directed to review the personnel ordinance to create better lines of communication.
On Saturday, February 14, Valentine's Day, at the FOP Lodge, Rick Van Alstine addressed a packed house of cops, firefighters and, by invitation, Chief Gomez. He outlined everything that had been attempted to come to terms with the city and said nothing had worked. It was apparent that the commission was unwilling to negotiate.
"We pretty well know what the city commission thinks of us." With that statement he tossed his badge on a table. All the cops and firefighters followed suit. Gomez collected the shields and departed.
City Files An Injunction
Using the law firm of Campbell, Cherpelis and Pica, the city sued the striking police and firefighters for $236,000 for damages. They said the strike had created an emergency of such a grave and serious nature that an injunction was required. The LCPOA fired its attorneys and replaced them with Lloyd Bates, Jr., a local attorney. Mayor Munson testified that the city's ability to deliver police and fire protection had been severely reduced by the strike. Under cross-examination, however, he had to admit that there were skeleton crews working. And wasn't it true, he was asked, that by terminating cops and firefighters the city had actually saved money? The city would eventually withdraw its injunction.
Despite the legal shenanigans by city leaders, the unions continued to make overtures to commissioners to end the strike, but to no avail. Their only hope lay in the March 2 elections. They hoped to get pro-union commissioners elected.
Mayor Munson, who was running for reelection, took out an ad in the Sun-News the day before the election bearing his photo and the following inscription: "ARE UNIONS THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE? OR THE LAST SPLASH ON THE BEACH? Union leaders...have no new ideas for improving the situation for the working man. They can only ask for more: more money for less work, more paid vacations, more coffee breaks...The national labor unions have now begun to move on the city, county, and state employees. These employees represent a source of new members, new dues, new money, and new power for the union officials. I OPPOSE RECOGNITION OF CITY EMPLOYEE UNIONS FOR COLLECTIVE BARGAINING."
There it was, in print, for the cops, firemen, and entire city to see. What had not been said for over a year and during the strike negotiations was finally out in the open. There had never been any intention of recognizing collective bargaining. It had all been one big lie.
It was a record turnout for voters, with more than 55% going to the polls on Tuesday, March 2, 1976. When the votes were tallied, Mayor Munson had lost his bid for reelection but that did not reflect a victory for the cops and firefighters. Three of the five commission seats were up for grabs and two of them went to candidates who did not support the strike: Albert Johnson, who was reelected (and would later become mayor) and T.J. Graham, a former mayor. The third candidate, Ron Hudson, supported unions but would be the only vote on the commission in favor. The commissioners would be sworn in on March 15. A survey of precincts showed support for pro-union candidates in the poorer neighborhoods of Las Cruces, and anti-union in the areas of higher income.
THE END OF THE STRIKE
The leaders of the POA made one final effort for blanket rehiring in exchange for dropping the strike, but they had no cards to play and the city turned them down. On Friday, March 5, Van Alstine and Erdie brought applications for employment to the FOP lodge and passed them out. Once they were completed, city personnel director Art Roberson collected the paperwork. The applications would be reviewed by an LCPD Board of Supervisors for recommendation of rehire. Van Alstine and Erdie also filled out apps. The longest police strike in the history of the USA was over.
Of the 52 LCPD officers who had gone on strike, 37 applied. Seventeen civilian employees of the department had gone on strike and thirteen of them applied. 37 firefighters filled out applications for their old jobs.
On Thursday, March 11, the city sent letters to 19 former police officers and eight LCPD support personnel rejecting their applications. Predictably, Van Alstine and Erdie were among those not rehired. As of March 16, 1976, only 24 of the 47 firefighters who walked off the job had been hired back.
Van Alstine and Jimmy Gomez, the firefighters association president, filed with the NM Employment Security Commission for unemployment benefits for those who had participated in the strike. After a lengthy hearing, their appeal for benefits was rejected because the strike was deemed unlawful.
Ten former police officers would file suit weeks later in state district court contending they were blacklisted, harassed, and had their constitutional rights violated during and after the strike. They sought rehire with backpay and benefits, in addition to damages. The city countersued, alleging malicious prosecution but that charge was later dropped. In January 1977, ten months after the strike ended, the court granted the city summary judgment. The former police officers had no money to appeal.
The strike failed in that the POA and firefighters were not recognized as collective bargaining agents, but it did accomplish some objectives. A new hospitalization plan that provided better coverage was adopted, and the city did increase its contribution to the retirement plan. The city also drafted a new grievance policy.
When the strike occurred, I was a young U.S. Marine stationed at Guantanamo Bay. Three and a half years after the strike ended I joined LCPD at a starting police academy salary of $600 per month. At the end of my probationary year I was making $680. Obviously the pay situation for LCPD had not changed. I do remember in my seventh year on the department receiving a notice that my salary was now $7.61 per hour. I had to laugh. In 1978, eight years earlier, I had been making that same amount working construction.
Those of us hired post-strike would, on occasion, bring up the subject of unionization. The veterans would just shake their heads and say something along the lines of, "You don't want to go there." From their perspective, nothing had changed in LCPD. There were annual cost of living increases and some benefits but all city employees got those. The rank-and-file had no voice in any departmental functions. Favoritism still existed and discipline was inequitable, which I can vouch for. The basic attitude from management was: if you don't like it here, go somewhere else.
No one ever joined a police department to get rich, and we all knew what the pay scale was before joining LCPD, but we also lost a lot of good officers to federal agencies during my career. For the first fifteen years of my career the attitude I got from police administration was one of complacency. As long as they had warm bodies to fill a patrol car they really did not care about levels of experience. Generally it takes five years for a cop to become good at what he or she does, but the patrol ranks were dominated by officers with one to three years of experience. Every year.
It would not be until 21 years after the strike that the POA was recognized. In 1997 a new chief and city manager hammered out an agreement with the president of the association, which finally gave the rank-and-file a voice in matters of pay and benefits. I was a part of the management team that worked out the agreement and was happy to see it. In my career, I worked with many officers and detectives who had been part of the strike and even though most of them had retired or moved on, it was a good feeling to know that, finally, their efforts were not in vain.
(Note: most of the information for this two-part series was taken from the Las Cruces Sun-News, El Paso Times and the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post. I also used the book Police Strikes: Causes And Prevention by William D. Gentel and Martha Handman).