Bill Would Allow Police, Firefighters to Unionize 

A bill moving through Congress could expand the ability of public safety officers to form and join labor unions. It may have significant implications in Virginia, with its "right to work" labor policies.

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007 recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 314-97. Five of Virginia's six House reps voted in favor of the bill, with Republican Rep. Eric Cantor voting against it.

"Virginia has not seen the crippling effects of police, fire and teacher strikes, which have plagued our neighbors to the north," Cantor says in a statement.

The legislation would allow public safety officers to form and join labor unions that are recognized by state and local employers. But such unions would be prohibited from staging walkouts or strikes.

"In many areas of the country, public safety employees are the only ones that do not have any bargaining rights whatsoever," says Tim Richardson, senior legislative liaison for the Washington, D.C.-based National Fraternal Order of Police.

The legislation would create a reverse situation in Virginia, Richardson acknowledges, where employee unions in other sectors of private industry and government are unprotected by law.

The federal legislation provides a two-year grace period for the state to come into compliance with the law's minimum requirements.

Some local public safety groups expect Virginia's local governments to put up a fight should the bill pass the U.S. Senate.

"I hope it will be done without a lot of fanfare," says Shawn Maxwell, president of the Henrico County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which could gain leverage in dealing with county administrators on a host of long-standing health care and other labor issues. "I can see in Virginia there's not going to be a rapid acceptance of it."

Henrico County's Chief of Police, Henry Stanley Jr., says there's good reason to be concerned. "What worries me about it is watching the other cities lay off officers because they don't have the funds," Stanley says. In Detroit, he says, some 100 officers were laid off because the city couldn't pay the wages and benefits the union had negotiated.

Other area law enforcement officials see the legislation more positively.

"All public safety agencies must work together and support each other through the Fraternal Order of Police, the Virginia Sheriff's Association and other organizations to continue pushing for improvements in salary, working conditions and equipment,"

Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. says in a statement. His organization often struggles to find deputies who are charged with guarding prisoners in what is among the region's most antiquated jail facilities.

The Richmond Sheriff's Office is an excellent example of where a union might benefit both public safety officers and officials, the national FOP's Richardson says.

The hope is that "once that table is set … there is going to be a lot more common ground than contentious issues," Richardson says. In the end, he says, the goals of law enforcement officers and the agencies that employ them are the same: "good service and safe officers." S

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