Bristol police officers join labor union

BRISTOL — Bristol police are now unionized.
On July 19, Bristol police voted unanimously to join the New England Police Benevolent Association after two NEPBA representatives visited the Bristol Police Department in person and made a presentation about member benefits. The Vermont Labor Relations Board certified the NEPBA as the department’s sole bargaining representative on July 31.
“I think they’re a great resource, especially for smaller agencies,” said Bruce Nason, whose seniority will make him the officer in charge once Kevin Gibbs departs as chief of police at the end of the month. “I was a part of a union in New York when I was a police officer there. Then when I became a chief, I dealt with the union from the other side. So I’ve seen it from both perspectives. I’m comfortable with unions. I was for it.”
The union includes all full-time and regularly scheduled part-time officers, but excludes the chief of police. According to Bristol Police Officer Josh Otey, all four current Bristol police officers (Nason, Otey, Jori Fairbanks and Randy Crowe) voted to unionize with the NEPBA. One part-time officer is on a leave of absence and did not vote.
Nason said that one of the reasons Bristol officers decided to go with the NEPBA is that it represents a lot of smaller departments, “like our size. So they’re familiar with what small agencies like us experience.”
Otey emphasized that one of the chief reasons police wanted to unionize is legal coverage, which Otey described as increasingly a concern for police in Vermont and nationwide. NEPBA stood out in this respect for its affordability because it offers comprehensive legal coverage as part of the basic union package.
Otey, who worked in Saint Louis before coming to Vermont and who has worked in other Vermont police departments, said that many unions offer legal coverage as an add-on benefit only, and that this can become quite expensive.
“Some of those packages cost hundreds and thousands of dollars a year,” said Otey.
Some unions also make it expensive for smaller departments to join because there are fewer members to share the costs of coverage. The NEPBA, by contrast, charges the same dues regardless of the department’s size. Otey said NEPBA dues would be around $11 a week per officer.
While having a union to represent police in contract negotiations wasn’t at the top of Bristol’s list, Otey said he felt it would benefit both town and police to have certain kinds of expectations better spelled out in writing. For example, he said that both police and town could benefit from an official, stepped salary schedule that shows where an incoming police officer might start and might expect to go, based on training and experience (similar to the step schedule for teachers).
“The town has been more than fair with expected raises and things like that over the five years I’ve been here,” Otey emphasized. “I feel very supported by the town government and the town itself. It’s just nice for both sides to get everything in writing to know the expectations.”
Money was not a big issue, Otey said.
“We all as a police department understand that we’re not going to get rich working in Bristol,” he said. “If it was about the money, we’d go work in Burlington or for the state police or something. We all really appreciate the local feel, getting to serve our local community. So if we can pay our bills and enjoy what we do for work, then we’re all satisfied with that.”
Another draw for many Vermont police departments that have joined the NEPBA in recent years is that it represents police only.
Most Vermont police departments are unionized, according to Tim Noonan, executive director of the Vermont Labor Relations Board, which oversees unionization and other labor issues.
According to the VLRB’s website, 34 of Vermont’s municipal police departments are unionized, as are its state troopers. Union affiliations include the NEPBA; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees/AFL-CIO; the Fraternal Order of Police; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the International Union of Public Employees. Vermont State Police are represented by the Vermont Troopers Association. Burlington, South Burlington, Milton and Brattleboro have their own police officers’ association, which Noonan said were separate from other larger national organizations.
The NEPBA, established in 2006, has been gaining ground in Vermont since the Springfield Police Department signed on in 2008. It now outstrips AFSCME in statewide affiliations. Twelve Vermont police departments are now represented by the NEPBA; 10 by the AFSCME. Police departments with the NEPBA include Bennington, Richmond, Shelburne, Waterbury, Williston, Hardwick, Northfield, Thetford, Springfield,  Bellows Falls and Windsor.
Locally, both Brandon and Middlebury police are unionized through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Middlebury joined in 1983, Brandon in 1991. Vergennes briefly joined AFSCME in the 1990s and then decertified.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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