Bristol police department eyes unionization

BRISTOL — Employees in the Bristol Police Department is considering unionization.
“We have to look at our options,” said Bristol Patrolman Josh Otey. “Most police departments in Vermont have union representation.”
At its June 26 meeting, the Bristol selectboard deliberated on a letter from the Vermont Labor Relations Board that included a petition from the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA) to become the sole union representative for Bristol’s police department. The selectboard voted to recognize the department as a bargaining unit, and is in the process of obtaining clarification from the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) as to its next steps.
The Bristol Police Department has six employees, including Chief Kevin Gibbs, who, as a manager, would presumably not be part of any union.
Despite his interest in learning about union representation, Otey said he had not reached out to the NEPBA and didn’t know who had.
According to Tim Noonan, executive director of the VLRB, the majority of Vermont’s police departments are in unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the International Union of Public Employees, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, and the New England Police Benevolent Association.
In Addison County, Middlebury police are unionized, but the Vergennes and Bristol police are not. Middlebury police officers, along with other town employees, are members of the AFSCME, said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. He further explained in an email to the Independent that “the police employees joined the union in the 1980s. Other employee groups (DPW, Waste Water, Recreation, Water Division, municipal office staff) joined the union in the late 1990s. The name of the local chapter then changed from the Middlebury Police Union to the Middlebury Town Employees Union.”
AFSCME provides a full-time lobbyist in Montpelier, said Hanley, and provides collective bargaining for wages, benefits and working conditions.
Police are free to unionize, as with any workers, noted the VLRB’s Noonan, and are free to investigate prospective unions and unionization at any time. VLRB oversees the election or certification process to ensure that the confidentiality of individual workers is maintained and that the process of choosing representation happens in a fair and equitable manner and in accordance with Vermont statute.
There are multiple steps and more than one pathway for the VLRB to certify that a particular union officially represents a local bargaining unit. Initially, the union itself (the larger national/international organization, such as NEPBA or AFSCME) must petition the VLRB and demonstrate that at least 30 percent of employees within the proposed bargaining unit want to be represented by the organization.
From there a municipality can respond one of three ways; it can:
•  Respond to the VLRB with further questions.
•  Agree to what’s called a “consent election,” an election overseen by the VLRB to determine whether a majority within a particular bargaining unit want a particular union. This step also requires agreement that the local bargaining unit is “appropriate,” meaning that the municipality deems a local body eligible for union representation.
•  Simultaneously “voluntarily recognize the association” (the larger national/international body) and recognize the bargaining unit as eligible for union representation.
With this third option, the municipality/employer must demonstrate to the VLRB three things:
a)  that the union has majority consent,
b)  that there are no rival unions seeking to represent the employees and
c)  that the proposed bargaining unit is “appropriate” under Vermont statute.
According to the New England Police Benevolent Association’s website, the NEPBA currently represents police departments in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. In Vermont, the NEPBA represents such towns as Bennington, South Burlington, Shelburne, Essex, Williston, Richmond, Northfield, Bellows Falls and Brattleboro. The union got its start about eight years ago. It offers union members collective bargaining as well as legal services and advocacy on legislative issues.
Noonan emphasized that confidentiality of individual employees is an important component in the process by which a bargaining unit chooses whether or not to unionize and which union to affiliate with. He likened it to the confidentiality of the voting booth, whereby each citizen is free to cast his or her vote free from any potential recrimination.
A Bristol police officer told the Independent that the process was still very much in the initial stages, that it was not known to individual members who at the BPD had reached out to the NEPBA, and that the NEPBA (or any other union or association) had yet to make an official presentation to the entire department.
Nevertheless, Officer Otey said that unionization could be a logical next step for Bristol police.
“So far this is in its infancy,” he said. “We’re going to have to look at our options as to which companies are available and where the best options lie.”
Otey noted that neighboring police forces, including several in Chittenden County, gave positive reports of working with the NEPBA.
“The officers I’ve spoken with are extremely supportive of them,” he said. “They’re reachable, they’re supportive, they’re involved, their costs are pretty low. And they provide a wealth of insurance and legal coverage for officer protections for any job-related functions, whether it be officer-involved shooting or internal investigations or policy violations, anything like that that is completely covered without buying a separate coverage package.”
The officer continued: “I think it’s very safe to say that with the state of hate towards police officers throughout the country and movements against police officers, it’s good to have representation both in the statehouse and locally to try to make sure that the police officers have a voice.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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