A MORE PERFECT UNION: Aurora police change bargaining union for first time in 47 years

239

AURORA | For the first time in nearly 50 years, Aurora police officers have a new bargaining union. 

The Fraternal Order of Police’s Lodge 49 became the official negotiating arm of the Aurora Police Department in late August following a majority vote from the rank and file. The FOP replaces the Aurora Police Association as the organ that negotiates police contracts, benefits and a slew of other line items with city management every two years. 

The change marks the first time the department has formally changed its bargaining unit since the APA became the first such entity in 1972, according to Judy Lutkin, current president of the APA.

The change officially took effect Aug. 29, a day after city management released the results of a department-wide vote that asked officers to de-certify the APA and make the FOP the department’s bargaining contingent.

Of the 711 cops who were eligible to vote, 610 cast a ballot, according to Marc Sears, current president of the local FOP. About 64 percent of voting workers chose to move forward with the FOP, Sears said.

All cops with the rank of captain and below were allowed to vote, Sears said. That precluded about two dozen commanders and employees in the chief’s office from voting.

Lutkin said many of the some 100 officers who received a ballot and did not cast a vote did so to protest the timing of the poll. The FOP ran a similar vote in February, but came up 18 votes short, according to Sears.

“There was a significant number of those 101 who chose not to vote because the city allowed the FOP to do this,” Lutkin said.

The change punctuates a steady shift among Aurora cops away from the APA and toward the local FOP, which formed only 17 years ago and has traditionally been composed of younger officers while the APA has generally attracted more veterans.

“It’s been shifting, I would say probably over the last four to five years,” Lutkin said. 

She attributed the shift to the FOP’s more prominent national presence, and the fact that some lateral officers who come to Aurora from other agencies had already been FOP members with previous departments.

“I think people felt comfortable going from one FOP organization into another FOP organization,” Lutkin said. 

There are more than 350,000 FOP members in lodges across the country, according to Sears. 

Jad Lanigan, treasurer of the local FOP chapter, said the sea change has also been the product of dissatisfaction with the APA’s bargaining in recent years.

“With the last couple contracts, the rank and file have not been happy with what the Aurora Police Association negotiated,” he said. “And as you can see with our pay now, below almost everywhere else in the metro area, people are leaving us for one type of benefit of one type or another — whether it’s retirement or money in the pocket.”

Last fall, the city narrowly avoided a ballot measure that would have asked voters to allow Aurora cops to move from a locally-controlled, defined contribution pension plan to a more robust, statewide defined benefit agreement. The city ultimately recommended to increase pay and time off while remaining on the local plan, instead of transitioning to the statewide pension plan, known as the Fire and Police Pension Association of Colorado, or FPPA. Aurora Fire, as well as both Denver Police and Fire, currently use the statewide plan.

Even with the salary bump, Aurora cops earn less than their peers at the Denver Police Department, which has siphoned local officers at an increased rate in recent months, data show. Aurora lost five cops to Denver in the first half of the year, outgoing Chief Nick Metz said at a public meeting this summer. He said the city hadn’t lost a single police officer to Denver in the previous four years.

“From a financial standpoint, being able to take care of their families and plan for the future, that was a decision that they had to make,” Metz said of the Aurora cops that eloped to Denver.

Moving forward, Sears said the local FOP doesn’t plan to bring the topic of changing to a defined benefit pension to the table when the union meets with city management for negotiations next spring. Instead, he said he plans to address retirement benefits through the department’s pension board.

Sears said he believes the FOP’s primary local counsel — Denver firm Elkus and Sisson — and national lobbyists will be better equipped to hammer out details than the APA’s previous representatives.

“We really believe that our labor attorneys have the ability to negotiate better with the city to give our officers the incentives to stay here,” Sears said. “It’s an incredibly challenging time for law enforcement, and it’s very competitive.”

On top of becoming the bargaining cohort for Aurora cops, the FOP will also be tasked with forwarding internal grievances to the chief’s office, according to Lutkin.

Metz, who recently announced his plans to retire at the end of the year, generally lauded his work with both unions — though he primarily worked with the APA — during his nearly five years with the department.

“I’ve seen horror stories around the country with relationships between chiefs and the unions,” he said. “My philosophy has always been to involve them as much as you can when it comes to certain kinds of decision-making and making sure that they feel that they have access to you, and they can talk to you about different things; they can vent … I felt pretty fortunate with APA.”

Metz said the preliminary transition between the two units has been smooth.

“At least for right now with the transition of the two employee associations, it’s been fairly seamless,” Metz said. “At least to my knowledge anyway, at least from my standpoint, there hasn’t been any tension or anything like that.”

Sears, a 16-year veteran of the department, said the FOP currently boasts about 450 members, and suggested he would prefer a department with only one union in the future. 

“I really, really hope we can have one union and we can be a unified front to help this city even more,” he said.

Lutkin, who has worked for Aurora police for more than 24 years, said the APA will continue to represent its nearly 390 members by providing legal defense and raising money to support local cops through a charitable organization founded in 2015.

“It’s a significant change that makes me sad because I do feel like the APA is a good organization,” she said.

Lutkin warned the FOP of making pledges that are unlikely to garner city council support. 

“You can make promises,” she said. “But in the end, it’s up to city council to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on any issues bargained in the contract.”

The next round of bargaining between the city and Aurora police is slated to begin in late April 2020.