Catch 22: Relations Between Labor Unions and Management in Public Safety

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Matthew Dudek


Police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel are on the front lines of homeland security at the local level. These men and women are sworn to protect and serve the community, providing vital services and contributing to the safety and security of the citizens they serve. These people are also public sector employees, and in many parts of the country, particularly in the northeastern United States, they are unionized. The public sector unions represent and advocate for these employees, and fight for increased wages and benefits along with workplace safety. Unions are separate and distinct organizations from government and their goals may conflict with those of the government entity whose employees they represent. The conflicts may distract from public safety and the overall mission of the organization. Demands for increased compensation, increased staffing, and adherence to concepts such as seniority—a determination for promotion and job assignment—can place government entities under financial strain and can constrain the flexibility needed to adjust to emerging threats.[1]


Public sector unions, especially in collective bargaining states such as New York, are well established and likely to remain a factor in government labor relations for the foreseeable future. Given the legal protections afforded these unions, such as interest arbitration and the continuation of expired contract terms—and the fact that employment conditions are contractual and legally binding for employee and employer—unions essentially create government policy.[2]

Union activism can have positive and negative effects on the services a community provides, as well as on the union’s relationship with the government entity its members work for; in some cases, a victory for labor may hold unintended consequences. In collective bargaining states, labor contracts govern many aspects of employment. Basic items, such as pay and benefits, are required subjects of bargaining, but the full scope of a labor contract is determined by what the union and the government entity it is bargaining with agrees to. Labor contracts are legally binding and the contents of the contracts remain in force until they are modified through negotiation.[3] The relationship between both parties, and how they conduct themselves in the negotiation process, is critical to creating a labor contract that is acceptable to the union but that allows for the operational flexibility needed to provide services effectively. Long-term financial impacts must also be considered to ensure the community’s viability throughout the term of the contract.


This thesis seeks to answer the question: How can public sector unions and government entities bargain with each other in a way that satisfies the needs of the labor union without compromising public safety? To answer this question, the research used case studies that show successful examples of labor-management collaboration within the fire service at the local level and compared the results with examples of labor disputes that have had a negative impact on public safety. The research also reviewed the history of public sector unionization and the legal frameworks that govern the labor-management relationship in collective bargaining states.


Though management may see unions as obstructive or unnecessary, in collective bargaining states, unions exist and have legal standing, and thus must be bargained with—failure to do so in a manner that recognizes the status of the bargaining unit may lead to labor unrest and ultimately a reduction in services and legal expenditures. Similarly, public sector unions must respect their role as public servants who work for the people. Overreach of authority and use of legal protections to force changes in the workplace can produce a toxic environment that makes positive collaboration difficult. Ultimately, labor and management must respect roles and responsibilities, among each other and for the public they serve.

Although they differ significantly from local fire service unions, successful examples of union labor-management relationships may be found in both the private sector in the United States and in some of the unionized military forces in Europe. Additionally, theoretical models of negotiations that could lead to successful outcomes based on an analysis of both sides’ concerns could achieve positive outcomes in the negotiation process.


Labor-management conflict commonly revolves around compensation and working conditions. A bargaining position may best be achieved by adherence to accepted industry standards and through study of agencies of similar size and composition. Unions and their employers should seek to relate to each other from a position of collaboration, not conflict. Both sides ultimately exist to serve the citizens and should conduct themselves with that in mind. Unions and the legal protections they hold are not likely to change, but changes in the environment in which unions and their employers operate may help alleviate conflict and contribute to efficient, effective services for the public from a fairly compensated and protected workforce.


[1] Daniel DiSalvo, Government against Itself: Public Union Power and Its Consequences (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 29–30.

[2] George R. Crowley and Scott A. Beaulier, “Public-Sector Unions and Government Policy: Reexamining the Effects of Political Contributions and Collective Bargaining Rights” (Mercatus working paper, George Mason University, November 2014), 6–7,​abstract=3191362.

[3] Randi Storch, Working Hard for the American Dream: Workers and Their Unions, World War I to the Present (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2013), 99–100.

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