Local politicians in New Jersey use contract arbitration as a scapegoat
Published: Wednesday, June 09, 2010, 6:15 AM Updated: Tuesday, June 08, 2010, 6:41 PM
By Ron Bakley
New Jersey’s local government officials frequently cry that police and other government employee unions intentionally seek arbitration to settle contract disputes.
Sadly, it’s a line of cheap political spin from crafty local politicians to mislead the public.
The dirty little secret is it’s often the politicians themselves who seek arbitration, and they seek it for the most cynical and selfish reasons imaginable.
Many local officials have made the political calculation that they don’t want the messy responsibility for negotiating contract agreements with police officers. Forcing police officers into arbitration means contract decisions fall into the lap of faceless arbitrators. It cleverly allows politicians to escape responsibility for whatever an arbitrator decides. Towns then conveniently just shrug their shoulders and point blame at the police union and arbitrator for the final decision.
As the head negotiator for the Fraternal Order of Police, I can tell you I have seen this scene played out countless times in towns throughout New Jersey.
Scapegoating arbitration is a clever political maneuver, but it’s also a gross dereliction of duty that is costlier to taxpayers than reaching a fair settlement with police officers.
The overheated political rhetoric and overwrought handwringing over binding arbitration and police contracts disguises the fact that it is local officials, not police officers, who misuse arbitration as a tactic to protect their own political skin.
The notion that police unions actively seek arbitration is, to put it bluntly, a lie. Police unions much prefer avoiding arbitration and reaching an equitable and fair settlement with towns through negotiation. Arbitration is an expensive process for the union that can exceed the cost of the matter over which both sides are negotiating.
Workers in private industry, unlike public workers, are sometimes forced to go on strike. For them, it’s the last resort to reach a fair contract with their employer. But police officers and other public workers are legally prohibited from striking. Arbitration is our last resort. It’s a necessary part of public employee contract negotiations. Without it, police officers would be unfairly vulnerable to the fickle and sometimes bizarre whims of local politicians.
New Jersey has endured an increase in arbitration cases over the last several years due not to police unions, but to an appalling lack of leadership among local officials and their reluctance to make, and take responsibility for, tough decisions. This is truly unfortunate because a negotiated settlement — a settlement that is fair and equitable — is always the best outcome.
Ron Bakley is national trustee of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police.