The Rochester Police Accountability Board’s Long Fight to Unionize

Can an oversight group be in the same union as the police it monitors?

Maggie Duffy   ·   December 13, 2023
The Rochester Police Accountability Board tried to unionized with Workers United. The city wants them in AFSCME. | Rochester skyline: Theresa Marconi via Wikimedia Commons | Illustration: Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

A public sector union in Rochester has spent the past 14 months fighting for recognition from a mayor who is required under city charter to recognize it.

The Police Accountability Board, a civilian oversight group that Rochester voters overwhelmingly approved in 2019, filed to unionize last October. It was the first police oversight board in the country to take the step. The board is seeking recognition with Workers United, a national union whose upstate branches have gained attention for successful Starbucks organizing drives.

For over a year since, Rochester Mayor Malik Evans has resisted calls to recognize the union, hired a law firm that advertises services in “union avoidance,” and attempted to force workers into a different parent union. While the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents most of Rochester’s public workers, it previously expressed that it was not interested in representing the PAB. Now, the city is pushing the fledgling union to join AFSCME, even though the parent union covers members of the very police department they’re supposed to hold accountable.

“This is not supposed to be a contentious process,” said Gary Bonadonna Jr., a Workers United organizer who has been working with the PAB. “I’ve not come across the city fighting a group of public sector workers forming a union.”

AFSCME only represents civilian members of the police force, like crime research specialists. Sworn officers — generally those who can carry guns and make arrests — belong to The Locust Club, a police union named for the wood once used to make nightsticks. AFSCME contends that this separation is enough to prevent conflicts of interest, but PAB employees and some labor experts disagree. Civilian members of the police are often implicated in investigations of police misconduct, they point out, as well as affected by reviews and recommendations of the Rochester Police Department’s procedures and policies.

Even though the PAB would only share a union with civilian members of the police, it is still a clear ethical issue, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“You have a board that’s evaluating people represented by the same union that represents the workers being evaluated,” she told New York Focus. “There would be all sorts of grounds for people to challenge whatever decisions were made because of that.”

Casey Asprooth-Jackson, a PAB digital forensic analyst, gave the example of the police body-worn camera program. “The IT employees, the people who edit the videos that the police release, who manage the files recorded by the body-worn camera program, the people who answer the phones in the emergency call center,” are all civilian officers and members of AFSCME, he said. PAB employees cannot directly discipline cops, but they can investigate complaints against police department workers and subpoena them to give testimony.

In a statement, an AFSCME local representative wrote that they “see no conflict of interest in representing [PAB] workers.” The dispute is now stretching into its second year, with a hearing before the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) expected to take place in early 2024.

“It was hot potato between the mayor and City Council.”

—Casey Asprooth-Jackson, Police Accountability Board

Mary Lupien, a member of the Rochester City Council, suggested that Evans may feel he would have more control over PAB workers if they were in AFSCME than he would if they were in Workers United.

“Workers United is fighting Starbucks,” Lupien said. “They have no reason to be influenced by the mayor and he views that as a threat.”

A representative from the mayor’s office said that Hancock Estabrook, the mayor’s legal team for the matter, has advised that he “has the authority to recognize the bargaining unit, though he is not obligated to do so” and that the city “remains perplexed that claims of ‘union busting’ persist when Rochester officials have consistently communicated to PERB that the City is fully supportive of qualified PAB members joining AFSCME.”

In May, Evans proposed a cut of $1.7 million to the PAB’s $5 million budget, which the City Council passed 5–4. No other area of city government saw major reductions. More than half of planned union jobs at the PAB have been cut in the new budget — the first since workers announced the union campaign.

Lupien said she was shocked to see Democratic elected officials, who value union endorsements, respond as Evans has. “It’s very unusual,” Lupien said. “But it’s because it’s related to the police. The police have so much power.”

Organizers demonstrate in Rochester. | Police Accountability Board

Police Accountability Board workers decided to unionize because of a sudden change in leadership and what they described as a hostile work environment.

“There was retaliation for speaking up against management. Anytime anyone said anything that was adverse our whole division was written up, or people were fired,” said Brandy Cooper, a former PAB employee who was fired 20 days after the unionization campaign went public. “The changes were meant to be punitive.”

Last October, 95 percent of non-managerial staff signed a letter announcing their intention to unionize. In response, Evans argued that although the city charter empowers him to recognize public sector unions, he didn’t have the authority to recognize the PAB — the City Council did, because the board was created by a City Council ballot initiative. When the PAB reached out to City Council President Miguel Meléndez Jr., he said that under state and local law, it is the mayor’s job to recognize city unions.

“It was hot potato back and forth between the mayor and City Council,” said Asprooth-Jackson. “They’re both pointing the finger at each other saying, ‘It’s the other person’s responsibility.’”

“Workers United is fighting Starbucks. They have no reason to be influenced by the mayor and he views that as a threat.”

—City Councilmember Mary Lupien

The PAB went to the Public Employees Relations Board and filed a petition for union certification, as well as an improper practice charge for Cooper’s termination, in late November. Two months later, Evans introduced City Council legislation to hire the law firm Hancock Estabrook LLP to respond to the filings. Some City Council members, who approved hiring the firm under the auspices that it would clarify the question of unionization, say they were misled.

“We were lied to,” Lupien told New York Focus. “All this lawyer has been trying to do is prevent [the PAB] from unionizing with Workers United.”

Hancock Estabrook, which cost the city $50,000, has since scrutinized the legitimacy of Workers United and contested whether the PAB has the right to choose a union, according to PAB members. It has so far not addressed the question of recognition.

On its website, the firm states that it “handles all aspects of labor relations for organized employers” including “Union Avoidance Campaigns and Related Matters.”

Now, with the city’s support, AFSCME is planning to file a petition that would fold PAB employees into its existing contract — instead of recognizing their interest in joining Workers United. Notably, if PAB employees are folded into AFSCME’s pre-existing unit, a “showing of interest” — the worker’s desire to be represented — does not apply.

By filing this petition, AFSCME can intervene to represent PAB employees without workers signing cards or holding an election.

Mike Dolce, an attorney for Workers United, said the timing of AFSCME’s intervention is suspicious. The public workers’ union had expressed its disinterest in representing the PAB in a March letter to a PERB judge, but reversed its stance in August — once the city was forced to drop an earlier argument questioning the viability of Workers United.

“All of a sudden when the city has no more defenses as to why Workers United can’t represent these workers as they desire,” he told New York Focus, “AFSCME says, ‘Actually, we do have an interest!’”

For months, Hancock Estabrook included a line in its PERB filings against Workers United noting that AFSCME “may have an interest or may develop an interest” in representing the PAB, even after AFSCME had declared the opposite. Lee Adler, a professor who specializes in union leadership at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, found this “totally suspicious.”

“We can be sure that Hancock Estabrook is going on the offensive by advancing the interests of AFSCME to stop the organizing drive by Workers United,” Adler said. Reached for comment, the firm referred New York Focus to the city’s communications team.

Bonadonna Jr., from Workers United, was shocked by AFSCME’s last-minute intervention. He said that last December, he met Mike Rivera, the president of the AFSCME local, at the union coffee shop in Rochester to discuss the matter. He said Rivera told him: “We don’t have any interest in these folks. They should be in a union, they just shouldn’t be in ours.”

Rivera did not return multiple phone calls or emails. The AFSCME representative said that “public sector experience coupled with our lived experience as People of Color substantiates that we are the union that can best represent Police Accountability Board members.”

AFSCME can make the argument that there isn’t a conflict of interest,” said Bronfenbrenner, the Cornell labor scholar, “but it doesn’t make sense.”

The city charter amendment that established the Police Accountability Board prohibits Rochester police officers and other employees from retaliating against the board and its staff. Asprooth-Jackson, the PAB analyst, believes this inclusion proves the city saw a clear conflict of interest between PAB workers and Rochester Police Department employees.

“If there was ever an accusation of retaliation against a civilian employee of the Rochester Police Department, there could be an investigation and the PAB could rule on that civilian employee,” Asprooth-Jackson said. “It seems that when they drafted the charter, they were contemplating this potential for retaliation, which demonstrates that they knew there was a certain conflict of interest between these groups.”

“Legally, ethically, politically,” said Bronfenbrenner, “it’s all rotten.”

Maggie Duffy is a Brooklyn-based writer and recent Mother Jones editorial fellow. She previously worked as an intern at In These Times.
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