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Web letter by Kenneth H. Steeg: Public-employee unions promote professionalism and quality service

The best Christmas I ever had was on Dec. 26, 1975, when I graduated from the Fort Wayne Police Academy and was sworn in as a Fort Wayne police police officer. I served for 27 years, 3 months and 2 days.

On Dec. 26, 1975, there were no police unions and no merit system for promotions. All ranks and work assignments were determined by political patronage. Officer assignments, including bureaus and shifts, could be changed arbitrarily, whimsically and daily if the party in charge desired. The same was true of promotions. Everyone served at the pleasure, or displeasure, of the mayor.

Our merit system for promotions went into effect Jan. 1, 1976, after several years of legal battles to stop it. Patronage was dealt a mild blow at the start, but I remember a uniform shift lieutenant grandfathered in who started the shift by asking his sergeants which officer they wanted to mess with that day. And choose one, they did.

The current appointed ranks of captain, deputy chief, assistant chief, and chief are still political patronage appointments at the pleasure of the mayor. However, sergeants and lieutenants are now merit ranks promoted through a competitive system. To receive a higher political patronage appointment, the officer must hold a minimum permanent merit rank of sergeant.

Our Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association union was organizing when I started policing in Fort Wayne. Compensation and benefits were a concern, but no greater a concern than the arbitrary power of the administration to change work assignments and duty hours at will.

Police officers believe in service and duty. But these were contentious and volatile times in the Fort Wayne Police Department. The administration opposed unionization and bargaining. Officers wanted a union to represent their interests. After the union was repeatedly denied the opportunity to represent the membership to the administration, the membership voted to engage in a job action. Officers started calling in sick, many on one phone call from the union office to the uniform shift command right after the union meeting. I was second on the phone.

We understood that we would probably be fired. However, things were so bad that we had to act. I remember one officer who was a short time away from his 20-year anniversary and vesting his pension who was afflicted by the “blue flu” because things had to change. No one was pressured to expose themselves to the flu. These were individual decisions.

After a few days of flu, members of the Fraternal Order of Police came out in support of our position. Some even succumbed to the flu as well.

Why do I recall this history? Because the PBA union, the FOP and other dynamics culminated in a local Fort Wayne collective bargaining ordinance for the police and fire departments. This was, and is, a unique piece of legislation that has enabled police officers and firefighters to engage regularly with the city administration to negotiate compensation, benefits and working conditions that promote professional public safety services for the residents, businesses and visitors of Fort Wayne since 1978.

Our other city unions do the same thing: They regularly engage with the city administration to negotiate compensation, benefits and working conditions that promote professional services for the residents, businesses and visitors of Fort Wayne.

Nothing in this process is broken. In fact, it has matured and worked very well for 36 years. Including employees and their representatives is just good public management and enhances good public service.

If it’s not broken, …

KENNETH H. STEEG

Largo, Florida

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