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Police Unions Win Battle While Losing War

Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t have civilian flaggers at road construction sites.  It is the only state that has police for all street work.  Many have tried to change the policy, only to be thwarted by the unions’ clout in the legislature.  Governor Patrick forced a policy change through a regulation, avoiding the legislature.  The police union was furious and packed the hearing with hissing, jeering bullies.

Today, a work crew from the MWRA (a state agency funded by state and local tax dollars) was blocked from doing work by police officers (funded by state and local tax dollars).  (link found via

I’m sure those union members went home with a smile on their face.  They won the battle!  Those flaggers didn’t get anything done!  They got in front of reporters and cameras, and they showed the governor who was boss!

The thing is, the unions completely misjudged.  Taxpayers and voters are smart enough to see that this is about greed, not public safety.  Every one of us has driven by a cop on a detail, talking on the phone, sitting in his car, not paying attention to traffic.  Most of us have seen a cop on a detail on a dead-end street.  We all know that some road construction requires police presence, but many do not.

Patrick is going to win this issue walking away.  The unions don’t understand that.

What they also don’t understand is the downstream affects of this very public effort.  Question One is on the ballot in November; it seeks to end the income tax in Massachusetts.  How many voters will watch the news tonight, see the waste of taxpayer dollars, and just decide it’s not worth paying for?  The public unions are lining up against Question One, and they won the battle on the North Shore today.  But did they lose the war? 


Comment from jjfoley
Time: October 6, 2008, 3:50 pm

North Reading has been addressing the issue of whether to allow civilian flaggers under certain conditions; if it’s not actually one of the warrants for tonight’s town meeting it’s been discussed in the papers and in various committees. But they present a different side of the argument that I hadn’t seen before in discussions of allowing the use of civilian flaggers.

1) As I understand it, the union’s position is that awarding the role solely to policemen was a chip spent in salary negotiations to avoid paying them more base. It’s basically a reward or perk offered in place of more pay. The financial argument is then that it’s cheaper to use police detail for this role than to pay the police more AND use civilian flaggers; it’s not just the cost differential for the civilian flaggers.

2) By having the policemen on duty for this otherwise boring, donut-eating task, there are actually more policemen active and on duty than would otherwise be possible. They can leave the scene to respond in case of a crime, emergency, or other incident. They can simply be more present and visible; a weak argument, but still somewhat valid given what little I understand about law enforcement tactics. (But really, nothing strikes fear in the hearts of criminal minds than a policeman wearing a reflective jacket, eh?)

3) Our neighbor two doors down is in the police force, and he’ll go through some brutal stretches of working the night shift for a few weeks at a time. (He actually likes it, says it’s ‘real police work’ typically against actual criminals as opposed to the daytime shifts.) I gather that these traffic details are sometimes given out as thank yous to individual policemen who have had to work long shifts, tough hours, or been involved in some dangerous incidents as a way to balance out their time in uniform.

In the end, I’m still skeptical about this practice, especially when massive overtime hours are worked to keep up with construction times and essentially obliterate any fiscal advantage purported to be a part of this decision. I would rather that policeman be given preference but not exclusivity to this practice, as decided on a town-by-town basis.

Comment from dunster
Time: October 7, 2008, 1:42 am

1) That was true for a few cities and towns (I think 5). But as soon as the loophole was announced, unions scrambled to get themselves qualified for it. Patrick was looking at hundreds of exceptions instead of a handful, and rammed it through. If North Reading is one of the towns that had it negotiated beforehand, then they have a leg to stand on. But most of the complainers are unions that tried to jump through the loophole before it closed.

2) I don’t buy this argument for a second. if you want more cops on duty, then pay for them! Let the town put them to good, productive work. Standing around on a dead-end street earning time and a half is an incredibly inefficient way to improve public safety.

3) My response here goes back to #2. Pay the cops for doing their job and reward them accordingly. Looking at the payroll records, I’m unconvinced that it is often used as a perq. In any given police force, some officers get a ton of detail work, and some get none. It’s a matter of choice, life, time, and money.

I hear your points, but they don’t change my mind at all. The bottom line is that taxpayers and ratepayers are being forced to pay for a service they don’t need. All of the other “benefits” are things we should be able to choose to pay for, or not pay for, separate from a public safety/road detail question.

Pingback from Dan Dunn’s Podium » Cops Blocking Road Work, Breaking Laws
Time: October 7, 2008, 9:27 pm

[…] Hub points out the ongoing stupidity of the police unions on the civilian flagger issue.  NECN has video of “off duty cops […]

Comment from Jeff Foley
Time: October 10, 2008, 7:05 am

Follow up, based on reports from the North Reading Transcript — Article 11 (petition authorizing civilian flaggers within town) was defeated by a “lopsided margin” mostly because the meeting was attended mostly by police officers and their supporters.

The Selectman actually tried to pass over the article without a vote, saying they decided the issue should be negotiated with the police union in contract talks next month. But the crowd wanted to send a clear message and forced it to be debated for an hour.

The current and former police chiefs spoke, saying that replacing sworn officers with civilian flaggers would be “placing our public in jeopardy.” They cited actual cases where traffic duty officers assisted in finding lost children, apprehending a purse snatcher, etc. “A $10 difference provides you and me and our community in general an awful lot of comfort,” Chief Nolan said.

Confused town folk thought they were going to have a chance to fight for it, not understanding the pass over motion failed because the unions wanted to torpedo the article for good. My favorite quote: “I have never met anyone who is not in uniform and not associated with a union who would agree we should pay exorbitant rates that are demanded by the police.” Another called it “a function they have much abused.”

The town’s Finance Committee chair agreed. “We are in very difficult financial times and Article 11 is our opportunity to take a small step to ease these times.” He called it “an excellent balance between safety and costs.” This wasn’t even for all details, just ones that the town is the awarding authority for. “The Finance Committee contends that on smaller, low-volume roadways the extra cost of the police details is not a good value.”

Disappointing. I wish the article had been written more like, “Cops against educating our kids,” given that we just had an override vote attempt to fund schools that werecutting classes and teachers to stay afloat.