The Union Fight That Defined Beto O’Rourke’s City Council Days

Years before he was a potential 2020 presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke was a leading voice in a high-profile battle with a police union.

U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke talks to a group of supporters and early voters at the River Oaks Plaza parking lot Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, in Houston. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
U.S. Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke talks to a group of supporters and early voters in Houston, Texas, on Oct. 22, 2018. Photo: Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP

Years before he was a potential 2020 presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke was a city council member in El Paso — and a leading voice in a high-profile battle with unions representing police and firefighters.

At the height of the conflict, O’Rourke publicly mused about disbanding the police union, calling it “out of control” and lamenting his colleagues’ unwillingness to stand up to the powerful political force. A year later, he was calling for “better checks on collective bargaining in the public sector.”

The fight came at one of the bleakest moments of the Great Recession, and the city was stuck in contracts with the police and firefighters unions that provided for annual raises and benefits. The city manager was proposing a 5 percent property tax increase and other hikes in fees to pay for them, but the city council wanted the unions to defer some of the wage increases and forfeit some of the holidays. The Firemen and Policemen’s Pension Fund was in need of more money, which meant they were open to negotiations, but O’Rourke was frustrated at how dug in he said they were.

Police unions have increasingly found themselves in conflict with progressive Democrats in cities across the country, and are notorious for defending even the worst officers on the force against charges of assault or murder. Chris Evans, O’Rourke’s spokesperson, said that when he relayed The Intercept’s inquiry to O’Rourke, O’Rourke’s first memory of the fight was that police were demanding a provision that would give officers a 48-hour window after a police shooting before they would have to answer an investigator’s questions. That provision is indeed in the contract; O’Rourke’s remarks at the time, however, were focused on officer compensation and El Paso’s strapped budget.

O’Rourke, in public, took particular exception to some of the demands from the police union in the ongoing negotiations, including its continued insistence on maintaining the wage increases, which he said amounted to 8 percent each year. In an August 3, 2010, meeting, a seemingly exasperated O’Rourke went so far as to ask the city’s attorney if there was a way to eliminate the union altogether.

“In my opinion, the basic problem with this whole setup is you’ve got a very powerful police union that’s been able to extract an unsustainable increase in salaries year over year and an unsustainable series of additional benefits,” he said, following an exchange over the city manager’s proposal to create a second police academy. “What are the provisions or opportunities for the voters of El Paso to go back to some other form of representation for the police officers?”

The attorney said there was not, and following the meeting, O’Rourke called the police union “out of control” and questioned “the need and wisdom” of having it in the city at all. The police union, angry at demands from the city council that the police be furloughed, responded by running an ad against O’Rourke and the city council.

The battle with the unions is another window into the former congressperson’s enigmatic politics. O’Rourke was a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition while in Congress, and cast a number of votes with Republicans on financial regulatory reform and other issues. Yet he also bucked his party from the left, casting just one of eight votes against military aid for Israel at the height of the Gaza war. As a city council member, he faced a recall threat over his support of LGBT rights. In 2018, he ran for Senate as an outspoken progressive, embracing “Medicare for All,” condemning police violence, and swearing off corporate political action committee money. He took a pledge not to accept fossil fuel cash for his campaign. Dozens of oil and gas executives, however, gave him the legal maximum, and he’s since been removed from the pledge.

As O’Rourke fought over salaries and benefits, he was also rankling the police force by sponsoring a resolution that called for a national dialogue on drug legalization. (The resolution passed the city council, but the local congressperson threatened the city’s federal funding if the mayor didn’t veto it. It was vetoed, which triggered O’Rourke to primary the incumbent.)

Evans told The Intercept that O’Rourke’s past remarks are not indicative of his views on unions generally but “were specific to the police union’s unacceptable behavior and the specific negotiation, not public sector employees as a whole.”

“He is a strong believer in the right for labor to organize and has been a reliable advocate for public sector unions and collective bargaining,” Evans wrote in an email, adding, “He campaigned everywhere in the state saying, ‘In this state that does not allow teachers to organize and strike, we will organize and fight for our teachers.’”

But in multiple interviews following the August 2010 meeting, when asked to clarify or expand on his remarks, O’Rourke expressed the belief that private- and public-sector collective bargaining were different and that the latter could be deleterious to the well-being of municipalities and taxpayers. In June 2011, for example, O’Rourke specifically included the firefighters’ union in his critique.

Q: You’ve made some controversial statements about the police and firefighters collective bargaining process and the position that has put the city in regarding continual salary increases and benefits. Your thoughts on that today and what the city might do?

A: I’m a big believer in labor’s right to collectively bargain in the private sector. The public sector is a completely different situation. From my experience these last six years on City Council, I do not think it is in the community’s best interests, certainly not in the taxpayers’ best interests, to have collective bargaining by the police and firefighters.

They are exceptional public servants; however, they are not so exceptional that they get to have these contracts and rights that no other city employee enjoy and which the taxpayer cannot continue to finance without the city going broke.

O’Rourke went on to praise then-Speaker Paul Ryan for having the “courage” to propose slashing Medicare funding and shifting costs onto beneficiaries and states — though he added that he disagreed with the substance of Ryan’s proposal.

“[W]hile I don’t necessarily agree with his take on Medicare, I think it’s impressive that he was willing to take that on, because no one else has had the guts to take that on,” he said. “That’s what is missing in political leadership in America today, and that is guts. I think the public is starving for it.”

Evans clarified this statement on Medicare, citing O’Rourke’s efforts to “improve” the program by allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices, as well as his vote against cuts. “In fact, he actually co-led efforts to introduce Medicare X and Medicaid public option legislation,” Evans wrote. “On top of that, he called for giving individuals the opportunity to buy into Medicare on the exchanges and advocated for Texas to expand Medicaid.”

A few months after that interview, in October, O’Rourke was again asked about the conflict and said he was a “huge believer in the right of labor to organize,” but added, “I’ll tell you though, that there is a difference when you have collective bargaining in the public sector.”

He described the tense negotiations and the lopsided deal he felt the city had struck. “I was deeply disappointed in especially the police union’s intransigence when we were in tough budget straits because we were in the depth of a national recession that was affecting El Paso. We didn’t want to lay anybody off, and the police union had negotiated a contract for themselves that the city council — minus my vote and minus Steve Ortega’s vote — had agreed to, had given them guaranteed raises, merit raises, and step increases and a very rich benefits program, while everyday El Pasoans … that pay taxes and pay their salaries were going broke and were going without jobs. I thought that was unfair,” he said.

Unless someone had the “courage to stand up,” the city would “run out of money and … have to start laying people off.”

O’Rourke said that the police and firefighters unions had too much power as a result of their role in funding elections. “You have a problem when people who are paying and donating to your campaign, and control a lot of the flow of money and influence in those campaigns, are then sitting across from you at the negotiating table,” he said. “I’m proud of my vote against it, but we took holy hell from the police union.” O’Rourke’s relationship with police unions went further south during the Senate campaign, with his viral defense of NFL players who take a knee protesting police violence, and another viral clip of him condemning police violence inside a church, which Ted Cruz shared.

In his October interview, O’Rourke hinted at his inquiry into whether the police union could be broken. “Now … the city doesn’t have the power, nor do I as an individual, to do away with collective bargaining,” he explained, “but I seriously question the city’s backbone in standing up and negotiate a good deal.”

O’Rourke emphasized the role unions had played in the U.S., but concluded that “there need to be better checks on collective bargaining in the public sector.”

“I don’t, by any stretch, want to do what Wisconsin’s done,” he added.

At the time, the tea party movement was reshaping the American political landscape by then, challenging the power of public-sector labor in states like Wisconsin, where then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker was trying to break the teachers union.

O’Rourke’s remarks did not hurt him with firefighters at the time, El Paso Association of Fire Fighters President Joe Tellez told The Intercept. From his recollection, O’Rourke’s beef was with the police union, and “they do business a little differently.” The firefighters, he explained, had deferred some of their wages as a show of solidarity with the struggling people of El Paso.

“O’Rourke, from our point of view, is a supporter,” Tellez noted. “We endorsed him as a city rep, we endorsed him as a congressman, we endorsed him not just at the local level but at the state level, in his run for Senate. And we had one-on-one conversations that, point blank, he supported our collective bargaining rights, and he always voted on our issues in an affirmative way while he was in Congress.”

Tellez wasn’t sure whether the meeting had happened before or after O’Rourke’s June 2011 remarks that included the firefighters.

El Paso Municipal Police Officers’ Association President Ron Martin had a different view. “Back in that time, he was not an ally of the labor unions at all,” he told The Intercept, taking issue with how O’Rourke had characterized the union’s demands. “I guess throughout time, he has worked with us, worked with fire, and worked with the border patrol unions. I wouldn’t say he’s not an advocate of them, but he’s not — you know, he doesn’t come out and attack the unions anymore, even though it does cost money. But you know, our goal as the union wasn’t really money; it was more retention of personnel and trying to be able to hire somebody. And if you don’t offer some type of benefits, they’re going to go federal or somewhere else.”

O’Rourke ended up winning his primary against incumbent Democrat Silvestre Reyes, a former border patrol guard, galvanizing voters by drawing a contrast with his opponent on issues like use of campaign funds and cannabis legalization. His election effort received outside help from Republican oilman Tim Dunn who ran a Super PAC dedicated to ousting incumbents; O’Rourke’s father-in-law, a real estate magnate, contributed to the Super PAC. Dunn currently chairs the board of directors for the free-market nonprofit Empower Texans and its project, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. Empower Texans seeks to give localities control over public pensions and eliminate the use of public funds for the collection of union dues. Dunn spent heavily against O’Rourke in his race for Senate against Cruz.

Organized labor — public and private sector — provides the Democratic Party with some of its strongest support in terms of both funding and turning out voters. For better or worse, collecting union endorsements early on is a necessary part of any Democratic primary. O’Rourke has faced difficulty in that arena in the 2018 cycle. The Texas AFL-CIO delayed its endorsement of the rising star. The decision has been linked to the congressperson’s support for allowing President Barack Obama to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which the Texas AFL-CIO opposed, as well as his no-show at the group’s convention.

But the Texas State Teachers Association was among the first unions to endorse O’Rourke in his race against Cruz, in February 2018. On the questionnaire the group sent out, O’Rourke pledged his support for public education employees’ right to collectively bargain.

In defense of O’Rourke’s pro-union bonafides, Evans cited O’Rourke’s work on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, as well as the endorsements he secured during his Senate campaign from the Texas AFL-CIO, the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, National Nurses United, and the American Federation of Government Employees — the largest federal employee union in the country.

O’Rourke boasts a lifetime score of 94 percent from the AFL-CIO for his voting record in Congress, and a recent poll of New Hampshire voters by Change Research showed that his supporters, compared to those of the other potential 2020 Democrats, have the most favorable views of unions.

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