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Right-to-work dispute splits police in KC

Updated: 2013-03-16T04:40:14Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL and JASON HANCOCK

The Kansas City Star

Whether or not they approve, non-union police officers and sergeants in Kansas City are being forced to pay a share of the local union’s legal fees.

If they repeatedly refuse, they’ll be hunting new employment.

The situation has created acrimony within the Kansas City Police Department ranks and prompted some non-union department members to take their right-to-work case to lawmakers this week.

It grew out of a lawsuit the Board of Police Commissioners settled behind closed doors in January with the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP had sued to block plans to consolidate the city and Police Department’s health insurance plans.

The settlement included a provision requiring officers and sergeants who aren’t FOP members to pay their “fair share” of FOP legal fees related to collective bargaining every year.

FOP officials sent an email to non-members last month telling them they each owe $73 for 2012 legal fees. A partial payment, at the least, is due April 1. Non-members who repeatedly refuse to pay will be fired without recourse, said Sean McCauley, an FOP attorney.

Non-members benefited from the FOP’s work by getting pay raises and pension reform, so they should pay some of the costs, FOP officials say. And they say a U.S. Supreme Court precedent allows such charges as a condition of employment. Otherwise, the FOP wouldn’t be able to enforce the payments, they say.

But the email sparked outrage among some non-FOP officers, not because of the amount of money, they say, but because they weren’t allowed input into the decision, don’t trust the FOP and resent being threatened with their jobs. Some drove to Jefferson City on Wednesday to share their story with lawmakers and lobby for legislation to limit the power of unions.

The visit grew partisan, with representatives exchanging insults through reporters and press releases.

A Democratic lawmaker called the non-member officers “freeloaders” and said those who drove to Jefferson City should be disciplined for violating their oath not to engage in political activity. Meanwhile a Republican supporter of the non-members said the FOP had adopted a policy of “forced unionization” and was engaging in “Chicago-style thuggery.”

Earlier this month, the non-members met with a lawyer from the National Right to Work Foundation, which recently helped defend right-to-work laws in Indiana and Wisconsin. Such laws prevent unions from collecting dues or fees as a condition of employment.

As it stands, Missouri is among 26 states without a right-to-work law. Kansas is among 24 states with such laws. The issue brewing in Kansas City threatens to turn Missouri into the next battleground state.

“We’ve been contacted by a couple of officers from Kansas City who feel like their rights are being violated,” said Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Foundation. “We’re watching carefully what’s going on in Missouri.”

One of the main issues likely to crop up is a Supreme Court requirement that unions must undergo annual independent audits to detail their costs and prove the costs are associated only with collective bargaining, not other political activity or recruiting. The local FOP said its accountant had verified its figures. But opponents say the FOP’s accountant is not “independent.”

“The officers are considering their options,” Semmens said.

The FOP’s prominence has grown slowly but steadily in Kansas City. FOP officials consider some of the recent bickering to be “growing pains.”

The police board first recognized the FOP as a bargaining organization in 2009, after more than half of officers and sergeants signed “interest cards” allowing representation. But the agreement wasn’t binding. Police officials were required only to hear the FOP’s concerns and ideas, not act on them.

Meanwhile, the City Council agreed to a wage deal with the firefighters’ union that provided average raises of 15 to 16 percent after two years without raises.

During those years, police officers received only one 2 percent raise, and that came after then-Police Chief Jim Corwin found the money for it within his budget after the city said it lacked funds for a raise.

As it began working for raises, the FOP conducted a regional pay study that revealed Kansas City was behind several other cities in police officer pay. It also hired an accountant to review the books of the Police Department and the city.

Last year, the FOP filed its lawsuit after the police board agreed to combine health insurance plans with the city in exchange for $5 million in police raises. The consolidation would have increased health costs for police officers, FOP officials said. The lawsuit prompted the city to sit on the $5 million.

Eager to settle the lawsuit, Mayor Sly James and city officials sat down with the police board president, FOP officials and police officials. They created a settlement that included pay raises, pension reform, the fair share provision and a measure forcing the city to release the $5 million. FOP officials also consented to the health care consolidation, as long as they could participate in the governance of the new health care entity.

Meanwhile, the FOP’s position grew stronger with a Missouri Supreme Court decision in November that required police officials to bargain in good faith, said McCauley, the FOP attorney. The decision means agreements between the FOP and police officials are binding, he said.

The research and legal work that went into the collective bargaining process last year cost the FOP more than $93,000, according to FOP figures. More than 900 of the department’s 1,277 officers and sergeants currently pay $35 in monthly dues, according to the FOP. It’s unclear how many non-members oppose the fair share provision, but about 50 people showed up for a recent meeting to discuss options.

“They can be upset,” McCauley said of the non-members. “But are they willing to give back the raises we negotiated for them?”

Officers at the top of their pay scale will get 4.5 percent raises over two years while officers lower on the pay scale could get more than 30 percent raises over the two years of the contract, FOP officials said. Police officials acknowledged the raises would average 18 percent.

But some of the non-members say they’ve only received 1 percent raises and they think they would have received them with or without the FOP. They also say they now have to pay more to their pension plan and for health care insurance and they think the fair share costs will rise in future years. They want to be grandfathered out of the agreement since it wasn’t a condition of employment when they were hired.

The drama in Kansas City is having reverberations at the state Capitol, where Republican lawmakers are hopeful it will help their push to turn Missouri into a right-to-work state.

“What’s going on in Kansas City is just Chicago-style thuggery,” said Rep. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican. “These officers put a face on why Missouri needs right-to-work legislation so badly.”

Despite GOP supermajorities in both the House and Senate, efforts to advance a right-to-work bill in Missouri have largely stalled, although House Speaker Tim Jones has said he expects to move ahead with the measure this year or next.

Nine officers opposed to the FOP visited the state Capitol on Wednesday. Brattin introduced them from the floor of the House, but referred to them only as “citizens of Missouri,” never mentioning that they were police officers from Kansas City.

The distinction is important, because police officers take an oath not to engage in political activity. Violations can result in termination.

According to state Rep. Jeff Roorda, a Barnhart Democrat and the business manager for St. Louis Police Officers’ Association, the nine officers should face consequences for violating that oath.

But other lawmakers and lobbyists around the state Capitol dispute Roorda’s assertion, saying police officers may be banned from engaging in political activity but not from participating in the legislative process.

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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