It’s a small-town police department in an idyllic resort town, but some Bethany Beach police officers want the benefits of unionization. They took a step toward that recently, with the signing of interest cards by at least 30 percent of the eight non-administrative-level full-time officers (ranks of patrolman, private first-class, corporal, sergeant and patrol lieutenant).
The cards were submitted to the state Public Employment Relations Board in anticipation of a secret-ballot vote among those officers (the proto-union’s bargaining unit) that would potentially certify the union.
If that vote garners more than 50 percent of the officers’ support for unionization, or five votes, they have chosen to be represented by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 2 in contract talks with the Bethany Beach Police Department regarding the officers’ benefits and working conditions.
With the officers in receipt of a Notice of Bargaining Unit Determination and Election Order as of Jan. 2, the vote will be held within 45 days of that date, by mid-February and possibly sooner.
BBPD officers with the ranks of administrative lieutenant, captain, chief and director of public safety are not included in the potential unionization. Those ranks represent three of the department’s 11 full-time officers.
Speaking on behalf of those seeking unionization, an officer who asked not to be identified said, “BBPD officers want to bond together to exert greater influence over their benefits and working conditions. The agreements reached through the collective-bargaining process may establish those benefits which otherwise would not be provided by our employer dealing individually with certain officers.”
“The union does not make any promises,” the officer cautioned. “It will strive to be fair for everybody, including the officers, the town and its citizens.”
Lest anyone see the move as evidence bad feelings between the officers and the town as a whole, the spokesperson assured, “Our officers take pride in working in Bethany Beach. They took the oath to serve and protect. However,” the officer allowed, “they need to protect themselves as well as the others.”
Asked about potential repercussions of the unionization effort, the group’s spokesperson noted that unionization efforts have often, in general, been challenged by employers, leading to protective statues that help the pro-union employees organize without fear of reprisals.
“We are protected though by the Wagner Act, which prohibits the employer from certain acts. … This includes asking workers about union activities; threatening the worker in any way, implicitly or explicitly, because of union activities; threatening cuts in pay or benefits; unexpectedly changing work conditions, etc.,” the officer said.
No such moves in Bethany Beach were as yet reported by the pro-union group, though their spokesperson was adamant in wishing to remain unnamed.
The potential benefits for the officers are clear. “Knowing that the biggest advantage of the union is the solidarity that it brings with dealing with our employer, we realized that this was our way to maintain security and certainty at work,” the spokesperson said.
The union organizers said they had felt confident that at least half of the bargaining group’s numbers would be willing to agree to the unionization before they even pursued the matter with the FOP lodge. At least that level of support will be necessary for them to successfully unionize the BBPD.
As for specific goals for the sought-after collective bargaining with the BBPD on the officers’ behalf or specific complaints that led to the effort, the spokesperson was unable to comment, saying further details would likely emerge after a successful vote on the unionization itself.
Response from the town came through Public Safety Officer Ralph Mitchell, one of the officers not eligible for the bargaining unit.
“We’re disappointed that the officers have felt that they need to unionize,” Mitchell said. “We have a very good pay package, a very good benefit package, and they have never lost any of the benefits that have been given to them.”
“We’ve always had a town manager, mayor and council that have been very pro-police and have taken care of the police department,” Mitchell continued. “Their benefits have been given to them willingly and freely by the town, and we just don’t really see the purpose behind it.”
Mitchell said the town has tried to remain more than competitive with its pay package for the officers. “Compared with surrounding towns’ pay scales, we are No. 1,” he emphasized. “If they had not been treated fairly as far as wages, benefits and working conditions, and they wanted to seek union representation, that would be understandable. But they were treated very fairly.”
When asked if there might be some area where elements less tangible than pay or health benefits were seen as lacking by the officers, Mitchell said, “We feel the working conditions here are good. Since I have been here, I can’t recall any officer that has been terminated or demoted. We have very good equipment, a good vehicle fleet. It’s just not understandable as to why they need to do this.”
It’s notable that police departments in Rehoboth Beach, Lewes, Georgetown, Seaford and Milford are all unionized. Mitchell again emphasized Bethany Beach’s position at the top of the pay scale range for police officers, but said the unionization of the other departments in the region might reflect a trend that is now reaching the coastal town.
“You can see from looking at that, that that is maybe the trend of the day, that maybe they feel they need the representation,” Mitchell said. “Some of those departments their benefits and their pay packages — I know their pay packages are not better than ours.”
Mitchell said the unionization effort might also be tied to a few officers who have particular issues with the department.
“Their feeling of the need to unionize, I can tell you is not unanimous among all the police officers,” he emphasized. “As is the case with a lot of places like this, it appears that it is being initiated by a couple of disgruntled officers who have personal issues of their own with the department and its procedures.”
Mitchell said his greatest concern about the tangible impact on the town from a police union would be “the cost-factor to the town, because it will cost the town money if they unionize. Just the mere fact that they negotiate, we have attorney fees involved,” he said.
Beyond that, the administrative side of the department will take a hit, Mitchell said.
“It will kind of take some of the liberty and free access to the administration away, because when issues come up, we’ll have to go through the union, or they will have to go through the union if they want anything. We can’t just arbitrarily give them things,” he said.
Mitchell noted that information reported elsewhere this week that BBPD office staff would be eligible to join the proposed union was, in fact, incorrect. Only sworn, full-time officers not serving in administrative ranks would be eligible if the scheduled vote goes in the union’s favor.
A previous unionization effort at the BBPD, led by then Cpl. Ken McLaughlin, who is now Ocean View’s police chief, was unsuccessful.