Petersburg’s police officers and dispatchers have lost a bid to form their own union and negotiate their own employment contract. The Alaska Labor Relations Agency late last month denied the local group’s petition to split from their current union representation. Matt Lichtenstein reports:

The agency’s three-member Labor Relations Board ruled against a separate police union in a January 23rd order. It says the police workers have been adequately represented by their existing union which is the Petersburg Municipal Employees Association. According to agency administrator Mark Torgerson, the 25 year history of that contract bargaining unit was one of the factors that influenced the board. He says the other primary factor was “unnecessary fragmenting”.

If the police split off from the PMEA, Torgerson explains, “The city of Petersburg would be required and have the expense of time and that sort of thing to have to bargain with another bargaining unit and under Alaska law, unnecessary fragmenting shall be avoided.”

The city currently has two unions. Along with the 70 plus workers in the PMEA, there are ten Petersburg Power and Light Department employees who are represented separately by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The Police union would have meant negotiating a third contract every few years, which is why the city opposed it.

The 14 members of the Petersburg Police Association petitioned to represent themselves about a year ago. They say the PMEA has not adequately represented their interests.

Their attorney, John Hoag, says, “They believe they are quite underpaid compared to other southeast jurisdictions and they wanted language in the contract that was specific to law enforcement. There’s nothing in that existing contract that is unique to law enforcement. And police professionals and by them I am including corrections officers that work as dispatchers also have separate issues and they want them covered in a contract.”

Hoag says the labor relations board ignored a lot of the evidence presented by the Police Association. For instance, he points out that the agency has allowed police employees to have a separate labor organization in past cases.

“They had allowed the Bristol bay borough to have their own independent police labor organization and that’s a borough with a population of just slightly over a thousand and ten employees in their labor organization. So it’s hard to look at that case and this case and justify the two,” he says.

Like the city of Petersburg, the PMEA also opposed the Police Association petition, saying that the broader union had “diligently and effectively represented its members” at the police department. The PMEA is part of the Alaska Public Employees Employee’s Association, where Angie Parker is the Southeast Union Representative. Parker encourages police employees to be more active in the PMEA.

“I hope that they will in the future, if they don’t take this forward and appeal it, that they realize that the members make up the union and you are only as strong as your members. And if…..Since they haven’t been bifurcated from us, they should get more involved…and the more involved they are the better the communication is and the stronger that we are as a union,” she says.

Petersburg’s municipal employees finally got a new labor contract last fall after more than a year and a half of mostly-stalled negotiations and unusually rocky relations with the city administration at the time.

City Manager Steve Giesbrecht came on board after that situation was resolved but he says it would be difficult and time consuming for the city to negotiate another contract with a third union. At the same time, he thinks the city should try to address the officer’s complaints.

“If we’ve got police officers that are unhappy or have some concerns, it’s my job and that of the chief to try to work through those and hopefully come to some arrangement with them and their current bargaining group to see if we can help them out,” he says.

While the Police Association was disappointed by the agency decision, their attorney John Hoag says the members have decided not to mount an appeal, which would likely be a long and expensive endeavor.