Unions are availing themselves of their collecting bargaining rights to resist the mandates, citing laws and contract provisions that require employers to negotiate with unions when they want to change workplace rules.
It’s not clear how many unions across the country are pushing back against vaccine mandates but police unions from Seattle to Chicago to Baltimore have all resisted mandatory vaccines. There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, many of them with unionized work forces. Some unionized firefighters have also resisted vaccines or the reporting of vaccine status.
“We have to protect jobs. Whether it’s one or a couple hundred. That’s our mission here, to protect jobs. It’s not vaccinated versus unvaccinated,” said Mike Solan, president of the officers’ union in Seattle. “It’s about the mandate in and of itself is a problem and they need to bargain this. Jobs are on the line. That’s our purpose as a union.”
Coronavirus is leading cause of death for officers
Because vaccine mandates are instituted on a city-by-city basis, combined with disputes over reporting vaccine statuses, it’s not possible to definitively know what percentage of the country’s law enforcement officers have been vaccinated. However, in cities that are requiring officers to report their vaccination status, city leaders are finding that these vaccination rates are often lower than those of the public the officers serve.
“More cops will die of Covid than will get shot, stabbed, or die in car accidents,” Wexler said. “This should be the one issue that labor and management sit down and say, what are we going to do to save cops lives, period. That’s not happening.”
Labor law generally favors employers
Withholding labor is a nuclear option that looms over nearly every labor dispute — except those with public safety unions. Cops and firefighters are typically forbidden from going on strike, either by law or by language in their contracts.
“We work now, grieve later,” said Solan, the Seattle union president. Officers in Seattle are in a dispute with city leadership over its vaccine mandate, though Solan said the officers aren’t opposed to vaccines. The Seattle Police Department is in the “separation process” with six employees who didn’t comply with the mandate to either get vaccinated or seek an exemption. About 100 submitted requests for exemptions.
“I am very pro vaccine and pro public health,” LeRoy said. “The labor law question is, you have to go through the process.”
“In this political environment, we would expect this to be litigated to the highest level of the Supreme Court,” Lee said. “With that said, it is unlikely that the union will prevail against the mandate with a defense limited to ’we are morally opposed to it’ or ‘it should be an individual worker right.’ The law is full of decisions which favor the state or local mandate in those instances.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised. Union brothers and sisters, it’s part of their lore, their folkway,” LeRoy said. “They communicate it to incoming people, and it really speaks to the tight-knit social culture that unions use, especially around striking. I don’t view it as a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a thing.”
‘It should be a bargaining process’
“Reasonable people can have differences when it comes to contractual issues,” Wexler said. “…this is people talking past each other.”
LeRoy said that things in Chicago have come down to this “ultimatum, and kind of ‘eff you.’ That’s not collective bargaining,” he said. “It shouldn’t come to that. It should be a bargaining process.”
Solan said officers in Seattle aren’t by and large opposed to vaccines. As of Tuesday, 92% of the Seattle Police Department was vaccinated, according to the Seattle mayor’s office. But a series of events over the last 18 months, starting with the Floyd murder in Minneapolis, have soured relations between city and police leaders.
Solan said more than 300 officers have left the police department because of “pandering” and “virtue signaling to the activist culture” in Seattle.
“You can imagine what that does to the human being, the police officer who just wants to serve. I have no interest in fighting the mayor, it doesn’t do me any good. My interest is in fighting for jobs. But I will call out hypocrisy from elected officials using us as political punching bags … you can’t treat employees like this.”
Chain-of-command and obedience are strong parts of hiring, training, and culture so departments can trust an officer will follow a dangerous order. Insubordination isn’t just frowned upon — it’s often a fireable offense. Lightfoot’s administration has called in non-compliant officers, had a supervisor give a direct order, and then placed those who disobey into no-pay status pending further discipline.
Wexler said the issue “begs for leadership,” and it’s not happening.
“People are exploiting this issue and cops are dying. Labor and management gotta step up,” he said. “This issue is bigger than any of us. We would not be arguing if we were mandating cops wear seatbelts and body armor. This would not become political. It has become unnecessarily political while cops are dying.”
CNN’s Sahar Akbarzai, Brynn Gingras, Alexander Harring, Jennifer Henderson, Laura Ly, Sonia Moghe, Sarah Moon, Anna-Maja Rappard, Raja Razek, Jenn Selva and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.