By Ed Jacques, LEJ Editor
After nearly two years of tough negotiations with the previous contract and administration and an ensuing Act 312 petition filed by the City of Dearborn against the Police Officers Association of Michigan and the Police Officers Association of Dearborn, Arbitrator Donald Burkholder rendered an award securing a Union victory on the vast majority of issues presented in the case. However, Burkholder did side with the employer on one key issue – a defined contribution pension plan for new employees. POAD President Jeff Gee was pleased with the outcome, considering the number of issues his association prevailed upon, including wages and health care, but knew that a two-tiered pension system would eventually pose problems within his unit.
Shortly after the arbitration award, Gee and then Vice President Gregg Allgeier established a relationship with the new Mayor John B. O’Reilly, Jr. and new City Council President Thomas Tafelski. They discussed policies and procedures within the department but also took the opportunity to bend the administration’s ear on upcoming negotiations and the negative impact that a defined contribution plan would have on the department. O’Reilly and Tafelski were sympathetic and promised to do everything possible to maintain the high standards and reputation of the Dearborn Police Department.
Eventually, recruiting sessions at the department went from hundreds of applicants to approximately 50, with only a dozen qualified candidates. Gee and Allgeier checked with neighboring POAM departments and did not see the same problem. Speaking with newer officers hired at those departments, they surmised that their neighboring community’s department’s pension plan was a factor in the recruitment process. The POAD conducted its own job satisfaction survey with over 70% of its members responding. The results verified what officers already knew and the administration was beginning to realize. As a result of placing new hires into a defined contribution plan, the Dearborn Police Department’s reputation as one of the premier police employers in the state was beginning to suffer.
Eighteen months into negotiating a successor agreement, younger officers were applying at other departments out of frustration. In January of 2008, POAD invited Mayor O’Reilly to a union meeting to address the employees. O’Reilly appeared and shared some information with members in the hopes that they would hang in there until a new contract was ratified. O’Reilly was optimistic about research information that the City had acquired on a defined benefit plan through MERS and that he was committed to making sure it came to fruition.
At the time, the number of defined contribution employees reached nearly 25% of the police department’s patrol officers with approximately 50 officers eligible to retire within the next five years. Because of these circumstances, most people realized that it was now or never to reinstitute the defined benefit plan.
As the two parties got closer to an agreement in September 2008, Mayor O’Reilly attended a bargaining session where great strides were made on the pension and other economic issues, including no changes in retiree health care. O’Reilly’s support of the process was a visible and key factor in the eventual tentative agreement. Nearly all of the younger officers remained employed with the Dearborn Police Department through the entire negotiation process and were rewarded with a MERS Defined Benefit plan with a 2.5 multiplier. They trusted their local leaders and the administration not just because of their sincerity and integrity, but because both had continued communication through the entire process.
“We have some great young officers and I am happy that many of them will be retiring from this proud agency,” said Allgeier. “We had a lot of common ground with the City. Neither one of us wanted to go to arbitration again, and we both cared deeply about the future of the Dearborn Police Department.”
POAD members must have realized that when they overwhelmingly ratified the contract by a vote of 150 – 3. In these tough economic times, it is indeed very difficult to negotiate something that was taken away in arbitration, but with persistence, preparation, political participation and an enlightened administration, hope is not lost.