The Working Stiff Journal
Spotlight on Labor
Vol. 2 #1, February 1999
by Jackie Dana
Despite the historic use of the police against labor unions and the politically conservative nature of law enforcement, CLEAT, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas has challenged such contradictions to become the state’s largest union of police officers and a political powerhouse in less than twenty-five years.
CLEAT was formed in 1976 by former members of the Texas Municipal Police Association. Arguing that the TMPA was reluctant to consider itself a union, CLEAT founders Ronald G. DeLord and John Burpo wanted an organization that was less conservative when it came to labor matters. From the start, CLEAT pushed for full legal representation, collective bargaining, and a more confrontational style of organization. In its first year it signed up 600 members, and two years later it could boast 3,000. In 1992 CLEAT became affiliated with the AFL-CIO as Local 6911 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
CLEAT membership is open to any licensed Texas peace officer, and today CLEAT can count as members more than 16,000 police officers, deputies and detention officers from across Texas, and more than more than ninety affiliated police and deputy associations. It has offices in nine major Texas cities, with its main administrative office located in Austin. It is funded entirely by membership dues, and its executive board is composed of rank and file members from across the state.
As a union, CLEAT provides extensive legal assistance to its members, and acts as an advocate when members’ rights may be violated by their employers. If a law enforcement officer faces disciplinary action or termination, or is involved in a criminal proceeding arising from actions performed in the line of duty, an attorney is provided automatically and without limitations. Furthermore, CLEAT also pays the employee’s share of arbitration fees.
A basic principle for CLEAT is that every law enforcement officer in Texas should be covered by a collective bargaining agreement. In the Texas Legislature CLEAT won an expansion of collective bargaining rights for its own members, its success offering a model for other public sector labor unions in Texas. CLEAT won the right for local police associations to take the issue of collective bargaining to their municipalities, where it can be decided by referendum. Its efforts are paying off: a third of CLEAT locals have won local option elections allowing them to engage in collective bargaining, though collective bargaining still encounters strong opposition from many municipal officials across the state.
CLEAT is also a political action force. Many CLEAT locals have successfully helped local and state candidates win their election campaigns. It also endorses candidates for governor, attorney general, Texas House and Senate seats, and local and district judges.
Devoting a fair share of energy to the Texas Legislature, CLEAT has won many benefits for Texas law enforcement, including health care for retirees and increases in line-of-duty death benefits for families of slain officers. CLEAT was instrumental in the legislation creating a police memorial on the Capitol grounds and it won a tuition exemption law which provides free college tuition for disabled officers wounded in the line of duty. CLEAT’s support of capital punishment was reinforced in 1997 when it successfully pushed through a bill closing a loophole in the state capital murder statute, making it more difficult for those accused of killing police officers to avoid the death penalty.
CLEAT’s 1999 Lobby Day will be on February 9th. According to DeLord, in the upcoming Legislative Session, CLEAT intends to push forward with legislation to remove a 1947 prohibition on collective bargaining for all public employees. Like the police, other unions could then mobilize to induce their local governments or employers into accepting collective bargaining rights. DeLord is encouraged by some preliminary discussions with conservative politicians and city officials and believes this legislation has a chance to succeed based on the current popularity of decentralized government with more emphasis on local decision-making.
Never shying away from controversy, CLEAT has tackled both ends of the political spectrum. It drew fire from conservatives in 1982 when it launched a successful “Cops Against Clements” campaign opposing Republican governor Bill Clements and in 1988 when it endorsed Michael Dukakis for President. In 1992, CLEAT took a conservative stand when it led the call for a national boycott of Time-Warner after the company released Ice-T and Body Count’s song “Cop Killer.” The album was eventually pulled from shelves and re-released without the offending song. This action sparked accusations of censorship by free-speech advocates, but CLEAT claimed victory.
This past summer the Texas Supreme Court upheld a state law giving enforcement officers the right to independent arbitration on employment matters. In Lubbock, the city had refused three police officers the right to appeal a disciplinary matter to an independent hearing examiner rather than to a civilian panel appointed by the City of Lubbock, the officers’ employer. Other cities had also tried to refer disciplinary cases to its own panels. In the suit, it was upheld that police officers must have a choice concerning where such hearings are held. Although a victory for the union, others have expressed concern that police have a special responsibility to the public and that this policy makes it more difficult to adequately monitor incidents of police misconduct as hearings are taken out of the public eye.
DeLord noted in October’s The Texas Police Star that police associations exist to improve the living and working conditions of their members, and that they should not shy away from opportunities to succeed in their goal, even if the road to success is sometimes controversial. As he put it, “the meek may inherit the earth, but the teamsters will get a better contract.
The Working Stiff Journal was a free community newspaper produced in Austin, Texas and distributed across town. All of the articles were available online on the UT Watch site for many years, but they are no longer available, so I am republishing my own work here (in 2014). You can still read back issues thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.