San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

December 4th, 2009
Police and firefighter unions pave the way for all city employees

Local Government Watch – San Marcos: A column

It was a bit of a thrill for me to see the police and firefighter unions (technically they are associations, but they function much like unions) convince the San Marcos City council to increase their pay nearly $20,000 over three years. This was a remarkable feat, since police officers and firefighters in San Marcos are already among the highest-paid law enforcement and firefighting employees working at similarly-sized cities in Texas. What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that, according to news reports, San Marcos pays its officers overall nearly 8% more than comparable Texas cities.

I have been a longtime supporter of unions. My father was in a labor union nearly 40 years before he became a machinist supervisor at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur. I grew up reading the newspaper of the AFL-CIO and have recognized that I was able to go to college largely because of the decent pay my father earned as a result of the successful collective bargaining of his union. About the only difference between the San Marcos Police Officers Association and the San Marcos Professional Firefighters Association and regular labor unions is that police and firefighters are prohibited from striking. Otherwise, they function about the same.

Starting over two decades ago, the San Marcos Police Officers Association followed by the San Marcos Professional Firefighters Association began to get involved in city politics. They used political action committees to contribute to city council campaigns, provided people to work for candidates, directed individual contributions to council candidates, and endorsed city council candidates as associations. All this work has paid off. The city council, by a vote of 5 to 2, approved $2.8 million in pay raises for police and firefighters over a three-year period, making them the highest-paid police officers and firefighters in Texas cities comparable to San Marcos.

Between the two departments, there are about 150 employees affected by the increases in pay. The combined personnel budgets this year total just over $11 million. The increases in pay are nearly a 9% increase in their budgets over three years.

One of the main arguments used to promote the increases in pay concerned how dangerous police and firefighter jobs are. Councilmember Pam Couch said, “Yes, we are all in the private sector, but we don’t put our lives on the line like when firemen or police officers go to their jobs. We all have to be smart business people up here, but in my line of thinking, there’s not enough money to pay any of y’all (the police officers and firefighters) for the kind of job you perform.”

The recognition of the danger of the jobs of police officers and firefighters gives other city employees a good argument to make in favor of similar increases in their pay. During the 25 years I have lived in San Marcos, I don’t recall that a single police officer or firefighter has been killed in the line of duty. However, I do remember that around 1988 a Public Works Department employee driving heavy equipment across what is now the intersection of MLK and Guadalupe was killed when a tractor-trailer rig hit him. And we all know that animal control employees have to deal with vicious dogs and even wild animals on occasion. Just about every city employee has to learn how to handle unruly and angry citizens, making their jobs among the most hazardous around.

It may be time for the other 320 employees of the city to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to get their 9% increases over three years. The cost is not too much for these hardworking, loyal, and courageous city employees. Over three years, the combined personnel costs of city employees (other than police officers and firefighters) are about $54 million. A 9% increase would be just a little more than $4.8 million, a small price to pay for the hard work they provide to the citizens.

Unlike the police and firefighter associations, AFSCME has extensive experience in politics, as explained in their literature:

“AFSCME is considered the most influential union in the entire American labor movement. AFSCME members across the country mobilize like no one else. We help elect leaders who support pro-worker agendas and defeat those who don’t. We win on issues in Washington, D.C., and the halls of government everywhere.”

AFSCME has organized successful Get Out the Vote campaigns for many years. It is committed to their members’ welfare: “Through PEOPLE we help elect candidates who stand for what matters to AFSCME members: strong contracts, no contracting out, affordable heath care, retirement security, no cuts to vital public services.”

AFSCME has over 1.6 million members nationwide and is a force to be reckoned with. The union describes its values this way:

“AFSCME is a union made up of a diverse group of people who share a common commitment to public service. We see the big picture and gladly accept the responsibility of guarding and nurturing it — not because we expect to be recognized for our sacrifice, but because we know the job needs to be done. That’s why we’re in the public service — to keep our families safe and make our communities strong….While we work for justice in the workplace, we advocate for prosperity and opportunity for all of America’s working families. We not only stand for fairness at the bargaining table — we fight for fairness at the ballot box and in the halls of government.”

It is time for the other 360 San Marcos city employees to follow the lead of the police and firefighters and get organized. It is the only way to get the city council to pay them salaries comparable to those now being paid to police officers and firefighters. Remember the words of that old union song, “The union makes us strong.”

© Local Government Watch–San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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8 thoughts on “Police and firefighter unions pave the way for all city employees

  1. Mr. Hankins,

    Does a 9% pay raise over three years equal a 3% COLA per year like State(University) employees often receive? Do the union contracts have provisions for COLA increases? What is the history of COLA increases for state/local/federal government groups in the area? I enjoy your columns and research into the subject matter addressed.

  2. I sure do like what unions have done for our auto industry and the airlines. In fact, one hardly has to do any digging to see ample evidence of the “benefits” of unions today.

  3. I guess I would find it easier to share your feeling of being thrilled, if the city weren’t so poor overall. It is not like we are Lakeway and all of our citizens make a ton of money. Most of the people in San Marcos are paying taxes toward salaries 3-4x what they make. That doesn’t thrill me.

    What would thrill me, would be for all of us to be in this together. Sadly, unions tend to favor a part over the whole, while one cannot exist (much less thrive) for long without the other. There needs to be a balance.

    We need better education and job opportunities for the people living below the poverty level (twice the rate of Texas and three times the rate of our neighbors in New Braunfels). We need to work to raise up the whole city. A case can be made for many people deserving more money, but let’s focus our energies where there is the greatest need.

  4. Lamar is making a sarcastic argument about the city ceding control to the Police and Fire Union. He is making the attempt to explain what would happen if all the other city employees were to follow the lead of the Fire and Police Union. We would end up in the same situation many California cities are in. 90% of the city budget going for employees salaries and benefits while the city files for bankruptcy.

  5. Oops.

    Maybe I am impatient or maybe Lamar needs to tip his hand a little sooner. I didn’t get far enough into the piece to catch the sarcasm.

  6. While it’s true that I am a longtime supporter of unions, I’m not in favor of bad public policy. Paying employees 20% more than the very fair salaries they currently receive is, in my way of thinking, very bad public policy made by five city council members who are willing to use public monies to provide political payback to their supporters, but this behavior is not really anything new for those five politicians.

  7. I live in Clark County Nevada where the highest paid public employees are two firefighters. Their pay is absolutely insane. Let me just say that fire fighters in Nevada disgust me and care not that they are bankrupting our state. I also didn’t mention that out of the top 100 highest paid public employees 60% are fire fighters and we are including district attorneys and judges.

    Funny how we get rid of the mafia in Nevada and the firefighters and police unions quickly move in to fill the void. If we are going to rid ourselves of this cancer we call unions now is the time.

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