A look at a Colorado Black man's death in police encounter

A supporter holds up a shirt to call attention to the 2019 death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, during a news conference on the west steps of the State Capitol after Gov. Jared Polis signed a broad police accountability bill June 19, 2020, in downtown Denver.

As Black Lives Matter protests rock American cities, mainstream media and left-wing pundits point a collective finger at police unions. Those associations, they argue, institutionalize racism and other shameful behavior by supporting a few bad cops.

This might be the first domestic union-critical campaign from the left since the labor movement went mainstream in the 1930s. In exposing police unions, activists risk inadvertently awakening the public to similar behavior by union leaders representing a variety of professions and trades.

Critics of cop unions provide a litany of anecdotal examples of the unions defending abusive, racist, and deadly officer behavior by bad actors who are far outnumbered by more caring and ethical colleagues. The union defended former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin through misconduct claims that should have cost him his badge long before he knelt on George Floyd’s neck, apparently killing him.

This public awakening should alarm professional and labor union leaders. Unions have forced Americans for generations to suffer inept, abusive, and racist conduct by a minority of public and private employees who would otherwise be fired.

“Suddenly the left is actively holding police unions accountable by stripping them of their power,” said Aaron Withe, national director of the Freedom Foundation public policy institute. “If they want to go down this road, and maintain any credibility, they will have to go full bore and apply the same standard for every employee union.”

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers concurs, explaining the political ramifications of taking on police unions.

“As people demand to know what stands in the way of quick and efficient handling of police misconduct they’re finding out it is employee unions,” said the former attorney general and corrections director of Colorado. “This will be a problem for a lot of big-city mayors who have been living for years on the contributions of public sector unions.”

Though it took the dramatic footage of deadly cop misconduct to expose the problem, Suthers said public-sector employee unions burden the public every day by protecting the jobs of low-performance employees. A few incompetent paramedics can cost people their lives. A low-performance fourth-grade teacher can harm the futures of hundreds of students, Suthers said, “at a critical stage of transition in their lives.”

“Collective bargaining contracts make it nearly impossible to get rid of the bad or low-performance employee, whether it is an egregious case of misconduct or just sustained poor performance,” said Suthers, who successfully fought against his fire department’s campaign to unionize in 2019 in the country’s 39th largest city. “I don’t care what area of government you’re talking about, you have to remediate problems with bad employees and if that doesn’t work you have to get rid of them. The unions prevent employers from doing that.”

Union advocates don’t dispute his point. Unions protect jobs, they say, because people need them to survive.

“Unions protect all workers from getting fired,” says an article by Linsey Mimir published by the Seattle Industrial Workers of the World. “So many people are living paycheck-to-paycheck that having job protection can ensure that people don’t become homeless, lose access to health care, or suffer food insecurity.”

A public awakening

Demands for union accountability in law enforcement are rising to ubiquity.

“Police unions have helped shield officers from accountability,” says a CNN headline.

“White U.S. police union bosses protect officers accused of racism,” declares a headline in The Guardian.

“How Police Unions Enable and Conceal Abuses of Power,” says a New Yorker headline.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, other major newspapers, along with most cable and broadcast networks have run with stories, editorials, and op-eds that quote experts documenting how police unions defend the jobs of cops known for abusive tactics.

They have a valid point. Standard union bargaining contracts inoculate cops against misconduct charges.

“Like other such police agreements, the one in Minneapolis gives cops extraordinary protection from discipline for violent conduct. It mandates a 48-hour waiting period before any officer accused of such conduct can be interviewed, a common delay and a luxury not afforded even to criminal suspects and one that allows officers time to develop a strategy to avoid accountability,” explains a USA Today article.

“Like many police contracts, including those in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., the Minneapolis agreement also requires the expungement of police disciplinary records after a certain amount of time.”

This came to light because cops do much of their work in the streets in broad daylight, as seen in Minneapolis. As Chauvin knelt on Floyd, multiple bystanders recorded mobile phone footage that went viral. The public demanded to know more about Chauvin. When reporters discovered his history of excessive force and bad-conduct complaints, the public demanded to know why he kept his job.

Answer: Chauvin’s union contract.

It affects other sectors

Other professions get less public scrutiny than law enforcement because the work takes place inside four walls or elicits less public intrigue.

After suffering years of abuse by a high school teacher, author and child advocate Joelle Casteix blames a union contract for protecting the abuser from consequences later in his life.

“There are very good, wonderful teachers out there,” said Casteix, of Orange County, Calif., who formerly taught high school English in Colorado. “What I’ve seen from unions is an attempt to protect bad apples. Even in my own case, from when I was younger, the union protected a man who sexually abused me.”

Casteix, 49, was 15 when a music teacher began sexually assaulting her.

“He abused me for two years, got me pregnant, and gave me a sexually transmitted disease,” she said.

The teacher left the school and became a full professor and chairman of the music department at Adrian College in Michigan.

As a young adult, Casteix suffered the psychological harm of previous abuse. She told Adrian College administrators they had a sexual predator on their faculty. She presented documents, which she discovered in a lawsuit against the abuser, in which the man confessed to molesting her and another teenager before working for Adrian College.

“They basically told me to pound sand,” Casteix said. “For years and years and years I fought to expose this man, and they would not fire him no matter what.”

Only after the #MeToo movement gained momentum did anyone at the college respond to Casteix’s complaints. Casteix harnessed #MeToo by sending letters about her ordeal to students and faculty at Adrian College. The professor soon resigned for what the administration called “personal reasons.”

“I found out they could not fire him all of that time, no matter what they knew about him, because of his union protections at the university,” Casteix said.

That was confirmed by a 2018 article in the Toledo Blade of Ohio, which explained how Adrian officials “confirmed Mr. Hodgman ‘engaged in inappropriate behavior while teaching in a California high school...’ but argued they could take no action because Mr. Hodgman was tenured and a member of the Adrian College Faculty Union.”

“It’s so angering to me,” Casteix said. “Finding out the man who did these horrible things to me was protected by a union showed me firsthand that everything the unions claim to stand for is a lie.”

As a survivor of abuse, Casteix watches the National Education Association and its state and regional affiliates like a hawk. She has seen her home state’s California Education Association routinely fight to strengthen state laws that protect public school teachers accused of sexually abusing children.

“They are able to get politicians to do their bidding because of the donations the union makes to them,” Casteix said. “What they are doing is protecting men and women who hurt kids. Something needs to change.”

Calls to three union offices were not returned for this article, but past union statements have stressed the need to protect the due process rights of teachers and other school employees who might be falsely accused.

Casteix has seen the union lobby for legislation to seal personnel records of teachers in multiple states. As such, principals hiring new teachers don’t know about applicants with allegations and/or findings of misconduct against students.

‘Pass the trash’

“Once abusers have union protections, it is nearly impossible to fire them,” Casteix said. “So, an administrator unable to fight the union resorts to sending an abuser to another school. It’s called ‘pass the trash.’ The abusers get transferred with the blessing of the union and the district from which they came. The district needs to pass the trash and the union has a contractual obligation to protect the trash.”

None of this is new. In 2007, 13 years ago, the Associated Press distributed a three-part series about sexual abuse in public schools and the practice of moving abusers from one school to the next. It resulted from a yearlong investigation. Only a handful of Associated Press clients published the stories.

“Students in America’s schools are groped. They’re raped. They’re pursued, seduced and think they’re in love,” the first story explained.

The series told of the National Education Association’s entrenched resistance to holding abusers accountable.

“Pass the trash” has become a phrase common among educators when discussing what National Public Radio calls a cycle of “abuse, dismissal, rehire and abuse again.”

The New Jersey Legislature enacted a “Pass the trash” bill in 2018 that requires all schools to “review employment history of prospective employees who will have regular contact with students.” The law requires applicants to disclose in writing past sexual abuse investigations focusing on them. It requires an assortment of other measures intended to screen out abusers.

The New Jersey Education Association declined to support the bill, citing concerns about due process rights of teachers accused of abuse.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 creating felony penalties for school employees who fail to report sexual abuse. The state’s largest teachers union objected to a stipulation in the bill that deprived retirement benefits for teachers convicted of sex crimes.

Protect the trash

The Portland Association of Teachers in Oregon protected teacher-coach Mitchell Whitehurst through three decades of sexually abusive behavior involving multiple students.

An investigative report by The Oregonian documented how Portland Public Schools ignored sexual abuse complaints against Whitehurst that spanned his 32-year career with the district. A 2017 district investigation confirmed the newspaper’s claims.

As the Oregonian reports, the district’s investigation determined “employees were hampered” in addressing the complaints “by a district practice that prevents a clear picture of a problem educator… The teachers union contract mandates frequent purging of files and this helped abuse persist.”

“The investigators found principals and other administrators generally avoided disciplining teachers and other union members in the absence of clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing because of concerns the teachers union would make it too drawn out and difficult,” The Oregonian reports. “That reluctance was particularly acute when it came to alleged sexual misconduct.”

Portland Association of Teachers President Suzanne Cohen told the Oregonian she will never offer a comment or grant an interview about complaints of the union protecting Whitehurst or other abusers.

Colorado investigative reporter Chris Osher, who works for The Gazette, in 2018 documented rampant disregard for a state law that requires teachers and other school employees to report to authorities any suspicion of sexual abuse of a child. In one case, two Cherry Creek School District administrators faced charges for failing to report knowledge of a middle school teacher who had sex with girls and was charged with five counts of rape.

District lawyers and the teachers union used the state’s 18-month statute of limitations to clear the administrators. When Democratic state Sen. Rhonda Fields tried to extend the statute to five years, the Colorado Education Association successfully lobbied to kill the proposal.

Casteix calls it a typical play that exposes a lack of concern by union leaders for people abused by their members. Withe agrees.

“The union will protect any bad employee because it’s in their financial interest to do so,” said Withe, of the Freedom Foundation.

He believes the union instills a sense of security in teachers by defending abusers. Should they be accused, legitimately or falsely, the union will have their backs. It makes the dues seem worthwhile.

Casteix believes unions inadvertently attract sexual predators to schools by aggressively defending them.

“Once you have an institution that protects child sex predators, child sex predators will be attracted to that institution,” Casteix said.

“It gives them power, protection, and direct access to the people they want to abuse. Handing out candy on a park bench may not be a good way to victimize children, but becoming a kindergarten teacher in that environment might be one successful way to go about it. Yes, it is a big problem in public schools, and it needs to stop.”

Though it gets little attention in the mainstream national press, sexual abuse in public schools is on the rise. The National Center for Education Statistics found 5.2% of children surveyed reported at least one incident of school-related sexual assault other than rape in 2017-2018. That’s up from 3.4% in 2015-16.

Systemwide protection racket

Union protection of bad and harmful employees does not begin and end with schools and law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, bad employees are not always racists, rapists and killers. Most are merely underperformers with unremarkable stories. If they work in food service, they might shortcut health regulations and jeopardize customers. A poor construction worker might pound nails too slowly, transferring disproportionate responsibility to co-workers.

Regardless of the industry or performance issue, union bosses prevent employers from weeding out the worst and rewarding the best with merit-based pay increases.

“We see it in the police department, but the same rules apply in, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Withe said.

And the fire department.

The president of the Omaha (Nebraska) Firefighters Union, Steve LeClair, pleaded “no contest” to assaulting a Black woman at a bar in 2019. She claimed he sexually propositioned her and used racially insulting language. The city fired him, only to see the union he presided over crusade for LeClair’s reinstatement. The union cited job security provided by LeClair’s union membership. LeClair reclaimed his job after successful arbitration.

“The leaders and members of Local 385 are pleased with the results of the arbitration, which has reinstated Steve LeClair as a firefighter and will allow him to resume his career on the Omaha Fire Department,” said a union statement. “We look forward to moving on from this unfortunate incident.”

The ruling infuriated Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, who considered the offense considerably worse than an “unfortunate incident.”

“Chief Olsen and I vehemently disagree with the decision,” the mayor wrote. “I support chief Olsen’s decision not to allow this atrocious behavior from an employee sworn to protect the public… Racial and physical abuse by city employees will not be tolerated. This type of violent conduct against women will always be dealt with in the same manner, with severe consequences.”

Denver attorney Beth Robinson, who is Black, recalls a labor and employment case in which a white employee filed a grievance against her client — the man’s employer. The company fired the employee for calling a co-worker “a stupid N-word,” though he pronounced the actual word.

An investigation found he routinely taunted minority co-workers with racist language and was indignant in claiming he had a right to do so.

“Because of the magic of unions, the slur-loving employee got his job back,” Robinson says in AboveTheLaw.com. “For nonunion shops, using the N-word and being indignant about it (with a history of racial animus to boot!) should be and is grounds for immediate termination.”

When an employee of a New York catering company openly insulted his supervisor on Facebook, adding “(expletive) his mother and his entire (expletive) family,” the company fired him. The post related to a labor-management dispute over a campaign to unionize the workforce at Pier Sixty catering.

“The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) lumped the campaign activities in with the Facebook activity, and the employee’s ‘speech’ was considered protected by the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act),” Robinson says.

None of it surprises Casteix. She believes unions are about the dues-paying members, no matter what they do to anyone else — including a 15-year-old girl impregnated by a teacher.

What can be done

Casteix wants state and federal laws, such as those passed in New Jersey and Texas, that protect children from predators. She wants laws that require open access to teacher personnel files and additional public transparency. She wants protections for school administrators who fire employees facing credible or proven charges of abuse. She wants accountability and a system of rules stacked in favor of children.

A recurring congressional proposal for union reforms, known as the Employee Rights Act, would prohibit labor union leaders from interfering with employees trying to create competing unions to represent them. It would require recurring employee recertification of unions, making them more accountable to the interests of all members.

“The unions say it’s all about education,” Casteix says. Or, serving food, fighting fires, and protecting the public from crime.

“To a lot of employees, probably most, it is about doing the right thing. But to the union leaders, it’s not about that. It’s about getting paid to take a bad apple, shine it up, and serve it to the community.”

Wayne Laugesen is editor of The Gazette’s editorial pages.

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