New union in town

Blount County deputies organize, but what will significance be?

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

This week a new player entered the fray over low pay for Blount County Sheriff’s deputies - the deputies themselves.
Blount County Sheriff’s office employees formed the Blount County Law Enforcement Union, a local chapter of the International Union of Police Associations, an affiliation of the AFL-CIO.

Dave Nulton, IUPA director of field operations, said 70 sheriff’s office employees formed the union in a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the United Steel Workers hall in Alcoa.

The formal process will take about six months to formally set up the union, Nulton said.

The question is, however, with Tennessee state law neither recognizing nor denying the authority of law enforcement unions, what exactly does this move by the deputies mean for the sheriff, the county commission and the people of Blount County?

Blount County Sheriff James Berrong said he knew of only a few counties and/or cities that have unionized law enforcement. "We’re exploring it at this time whether (the state) recognizes the union or not. It’s still early. I haven’t had a chance to look at everything," he said.

The new local chapter president Ronnie Reagan referred questions about the union to Nulton, who said state law is mute on whether law enforcement officers can formally take part in collective bargaining. It is done informally in Shelby County, Memphis and Nashville, he said.

Nulton admitted that even if a union existed, a sheriff or police chief could simply disregard the union since there is no state law saying they have to bargain with the rank and file.

"That could be their position (to disregard the union since there is no law for collective bargaining)," Nulton said. "Hopefully, it won’t be. We would hope to have an ongoing dialogue with the sheriff."

Berrong said he hoped the deputies and employees were simply considering forming a union. Berrong said he empathized with the deputies and asked for their patience in solving the pay problems.

"I feel for them. We all have the commitment, the goal in mind, to get them paid equal to their peers," he said. "I would like to think they’re just exploring this (union) as an option."

Berrong said he realized the deputies were frustrated with seeing their peers at other agencies make better pay.

"All they want is no more or no less. They have to work a number of extra jobs or overtime just to put food on tables. And when they work overtime, they never see their families, which is a tough trade off," he said. "I asked them to be patient and give the county commission and the county mayor an opportunity. I told them all it can’t be corrected overnight. It needs to be a four or five year plan."

"There’s no law that says you can’t do it," Nulton said of state law. "State law doesn’t exist, but local governments are free to engage in ‘meet and confer’ meetings."

While no contract can be created, the parties involved can sign a "memorandum of understanding."

It is loose terminology for the collective bargaining process, Nulton said. "There’s no formal avenue for going to the table, we’re probably years away from that happening."

The reason it could be many years before law enforcement unions will ever be able to formally, collectively bargain and sign contracts for pay or benefits is because Tennessee state law would have to be passed allowing this. "That is many, many years away from being reality," Nulton said. "We’ve got to get organized, get a foundation. You’ve got to be in position."
In some states it has taken 20 years or longer to get a collective bargaining law.

"Once housekeeping gets done, we’ll address the concerns of the membership" Nulton said. "We’ll speak with the sheriff. It’s all an informal arrangement. When you have collective bargaining, that’s when it becomes formal."

Nulton said the local union’s job now is to get organized, mobilized and recruit. "You have to have over 50 percent to claim you represent the majority interest," he said.

Nulton said the new union could help the relationship between the sheriff and the employees. "Hopefully it will increase the ability to communicate. That collective voice is speaking on behalf of 300 employees instead of individually 300 people speaking," he said.

Dues to belong to the local chapter are $40 per month, Nulton said.

On the issue of whether a union would strike to get their demands heard, Nulton was adamant that that would not happen.
"Our position is the employees of the sheriff’s office will never, ever do anything to adversely affect public safety," Nulton said. "They’ll continue to do the job, support businesses and the community. That word strike isn’t even part of their vocabulary," Nulton said.

"Long term, all unions want to negotiate wages, healthcare and benefits."

Nulton explained the difference between the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Union of Police Agencies.
"Our job is to be a labor union. Their job is as a social fraternal group, and, hopefully, we can complement each other," he said. "There’s no reason we can’t work together to mutually benefit the employees of the sheriff’s department."

Nulton said it was too early to talk about specific issues the local union chapter will address first. "We’ve got a lot of housekeeping to do. Later on down the road, you’ll see us address specific issues. It’s too early now," he said.

Nulton said the housekeeping part of setting up the local chapter will take three to six months of organizing. The local union members will be busy creating a constitution and bylaws, getting a local treasury established and doing a membership drive. "We’re going to have a 100 percent participation of law enforcement, corrections and civilian employees, so it’s going to be a good three to six months to do a membership drive," he said. "After six months, you’ll see issues being addressed."
Nulton was optimistic about the union’s chances of creating better working situations for deputies in Blount County.

"There’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in Blount County. The whole gist is obviously, the sheriff has a viewpoint, and the rank and file have a viewpoint, and I think it’s important we share the rank and file view," he said.

"I think it’s important all the elected folks hear from rank and file as a collective voice. That’s our purpose in life."

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