In the past few years, the push for civilian oversight of law enforcement has expanded nationwide. Body cam technology and police reform increasingly being written into law, and social movements like Black Lives Matter have generated incredible energy and civilian oversight of law enforcement has expanded. Along with it, however, new ways of obstructing the work of holding law enforcement agencies accountable have and continue to emerge.
Rochester, NY is no stranger to police brutality and corruption. The Police Accountability Board Was formed in 2019 by public referendum after decades of failed attempts and a multi-year organizing campaign. It was intended to have some of the strongest legal powers of any agency of its kind in the country in regards to data access and the ability to discipline officers for misconduct.
Most of the current staff was hired to various roles within the agency in early 2022. The energy at the time was amazing, and we thought we were going to change the world. We were all inspired and ready to work hard and hit the ground running.
Immediately we started to notice strange goings-on. Work was being stalled by various players, both internally and from other City government entities.
Our Executive Director, who had designed much of our structure, staffing positions, and secured our historic $5 million annual budget, was placed on indefinite leave for reasons outside of our knowledge at the time, and we were told by our bosses that we were not allowed to speak with him.
In June of 2022, a group of non-management staff wrote an anonymous letter requesting more clarity and transparency, and expressed concerns about the deteriorating workplace culture compared to where it had started at, and the implications this could have on the agency’s ability to function in general. This was the first act of collective organizing by PAB staff, yet talk of unionization was still months away.
Shortly after the letter went out, a meeting was called to address the concerns we brought up in the letter- or so we thought. Instead, the meeting was used to berate staff for violating confidentiality by sending a letter from a non-city owned email address. A member of staff addressed the supposed confidentiality concerns by downloading the letter and forwarding it to everyone on the call from his email address, and requesting the concerns be addressed. His request was still refused, and days later, he was fired. We were told it had nothing to do with the meeting, but we were not given the actual reason.
In the months that followed, more changes took place: staff were written up for policies that hadn’t been discussed upon their hire, schedules were arbitrarily changed with little notice, staff were told to avoid “gossip” when meeting together, vacation time requests were denied, supervisors were switched between departments without notifying staff… The list goes on.
Staff were targeted for asking for explanations of general HR policies, questions around pay, and working conditions. Four more members of staff were fired with no justification given (it was not uncommon for staff to learn of their termination by noticing their badge to enter the building suddenly didn’t work) and another was constructively discharged citing an intolerable relationship with their supervisor getting in the way of their ability to do their work. A group of us began holding meetings to discuss what it would take to unionize our workplace with the ultimate goal of protecting those of us who were most motivated to contribute to the work of the agency, and, by extension, the legitimacy of the agency as a whole.
In the following weeks, seven of us spent considerable time and effort mapping out potential levels of support for unionization among our fellow staff members, and found it to be high. We began reaching out to various unions, including some that traditionally represented civil service workers and other public sector employees in the City of Rochester and Monroe County. While we were oftentimes met with well wishes and statements of support, we were not accepted by any of the unions we reached out to. Reasons given included our small unit size, the controversial nature of our work, solidarity with police unions, and the public perception of the agency as being volatile and unstable.
We were then put in contact with Jaz Brisack, an organizer with Workers United Upstate New York who was deeply involved in the Starbucks campaign, through an organizer who had trained our organizing committee but was unable to convince his union’s leadership to agree to represent us. Jaz asked about our job descriptions, our day-to-day tasks, and the working conditions we experienced. They then spoke to Gary Bonadonna, president of the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United, and almost immediately we were enthusiastically welcomed. As a generally young staff with an activist and justice oriented mindset, we were all very excited upon learning about the Starbucks campaign in nearby Buffalo and the values that Workers United represents.
On October 6th, 2022, we announced our intention to form a union with a press conference outside of our office and sent union cards to City Hall. We made Twitter and Facebook pages, and gave media interviews. All of us signed a card except for one union eligible member of staff, who later did sign a card after experiencing retaliation.
Shortly after our announcement, we were told by Mayor Malik Evan’s office that it was not clear who was responsible to recognize our union. It would come down to either City Council or the Mayor. Because we are public sector employees, we operate under the Public Employees Relations Board, or PERB, and the Taylor Law, and instead of winning a vote to become unionized, our employer must recognize our union after a majority of staff signs cards.
A process that we thought would unfold relatively quickly thus began to take several weeks. After the leader of our union campaign was fired and told by management that she had resigned, we decided to take a new approach.
Because the Mayor said he thought it was the City Council who needed to recognize us, and the City Council President said he thought it was the Mayor, we decided to publicly ask them both to jointly recognize our union. At this point there was no legal ambiguity about whether or not we would ultimately have a union as every stakeholder admitted that we were basically there, we just needed the recognition piece. We held a press conference and wrote another letter shedding light on what had happened so far, and called on both the Mayor and City Council to recognize our union.
At this point we still believed our superiors were acting in good faith, though of course we had our suspicions. In response to our letter, Mayor Evans requested City Council write legislation allocating 50k to hire a law firm under the pretense that it would examine and resolve the question about who would eventually recognize our union with Workers United.
Almost immediately, our hopes of good faith dealings were dashed. Hancock Estabrook, the law firm that the city hired, took the position that because Workers United only represented private sector workers, it was not a legitimate employee organization for us to join. We later found out on their website that Hancock Estabrook specializes in “Union Avoidance”.
We knew the argument that Workers United could not represent city employees was nonsense as there were other local examples of public/private hybrid unions, but we needed to cover our bases. Graciously, Workers United voted to amend their constitution to accommodate the fewer than 20 of us who will form this union.
Because of the way that NYS PERB works, we also recognized that it was in our best interest to withdraw our petition and refile it under the new Workers United Constitution. PERB would only recognize the conditions of the petition at the time it was filed. This delayed the process by a few months, and allowed the City and its law firm to develop more strategies and muddy the public narrative against us.
At this point, seven more employees were constructively discharged, amounting to over 30% of our potential union. Our allegations of retaliation and hostility were spun into narratives about dysfunction and infighting, and our agency seemed to become the subject of jokes among City Council, the Mayor’s Office, and the Police Department. City Council and the Mayor’s office then began holding public input sessions and conducting non-scientific surveys about the effectiveness of the PAB, and started to throw terms around like “reimagine” or “replace” what we have with “something better”.
Efforts by staff members and community support were thankfully able to counter these tactics quite well, but nonetheless, when the city’s budget came out in June of 2023, our allocation was
cut by one third, down from $5 million to $3.4 million. Surprisingly, this budget change was requested by management of the PAB despite strong opposition from staff and the community.
To account for the changes in the new budget, our organizational structure was shuffled significantly. Staffing was reduced and cuts disproportionately affected union-eligible non management positions, and the ratio of staff to managers decreased. Both our union and the agency suffered from this: for example, all six non-management attorney positions were deleted from our organizational chart.
A few months later and with our union still not recognized, we learned that the local chapter of AFSCME, which had wished us luck a year earlier but expressly disavowed interest in representing us, suddenly wanted to “accrete” (or absorb) our unit. AFSCME covers other city employees in the city of Rochester, however the contract that we would be working under for the next few years would reduce our annual time off and result in us being paid less.
In the notice that we received from Hancock Estabrook explaining AFSCME’s petition to intervene in our campaign to join Workers United, we were also informed that the Mayor would immediately recognize our union if we agreed to join AFSCME. This signaled to us that he had the power to recognize all along and there was never any legal ambiguity. It became clear that the Evans Administration was worried that the progressive politics of Workers United would infiltrate the City government.
In response to this development, staff sent a unanimous letter to AFSCME requesting they withdraw their interest, and after members at Workers United and staff members had conversations with the local AFSCME president, we learned that the decision was made by someone above him and that they would not withdraw interest. This suggested to us that AFSCME is truly a company union that takes barking orders from the boss, or in this case, most likely the Mayor. The fact that AFSCME would not acknowledge the will of the staff it was trying to represent raised concerns about whether they would protect us as their members if we were accreted into AFSCME.
Shortly afterwards, AFSCME held a meeting with PAB staff and Jaz. It felt like they were trying to gaslight us the entire time. The meeting was incredibly adversarial, and staff made it exceptionally clear to AFSCME leadership that they were going against the will of the workers. Nonetheless, there have been no changes. AFSCME continues to attempt to subvert the will of the workers in question.
This brings us to where we find ourselves today. While making the case to the PERB judge that AFSCME and the City engaged in improper practice by colluding to undermine the will of the unit in question, as well as cutting our budget to weaken the union, we are also working on spreading the narrative among the local labor community that AFSCME is violating the Taylor Law and undermining the will of the workers. Our aim is to apply pressure in a way that makes it more convenient for AFSCME to withdraw their petition to intervene in our process with
Workers United. In a city where AFSCME is a traditional union deeply entrenched in the labor movement, we are facing an uphill battle. We are also constantly engaged in off the clock advocacy for the continued existence of our agency and fighting against procedural and legal loopholes that are constantly being used to limit our jurisdiction and ability to investigate police misconduct. On top of all of this, we continue to show up to work and do our jobs, which include speaking to traumatized individuals and their families and reviewing footage of people being injured or killed.
A year and a half after signing union cards, we have continued to do what we can to finally get the recognition we are entitled to. Workers United has been unflinching in their support for us, inviting us to conferences like the Inside Organizer School and continuing to represent us in court. We also continue to agitate: most recently, two of us gathered signatures at a holiday party for city employees, asking AFSCME members to call on their union’s leadership to withdraw their petition. In a poetic coincidence, we talked to a man outside of City Hall before going into the party who was distraught as cops had just shot and killed his pet dog. We confronted the mayor about AFSCMEs involvement and our right to join the union of our choosing. He responded aggressively and suggested we were ruining the party. When we were pulled into a meeting and scolded by our Executive Director the following week, it showed us that word had made it back to her and people were talking about us. We knew we were doing the right thing.
Recently, an article was written by Maggie Duffy, a journalist for the New York Focus titled “Rochester Police Accountability Board’s Long Fight to Unionize”. This article lays out our fight very well and has reinvigorated our campaign by inspiring us to continue and generating some chatter among stakeholders. It is probably the first time our union effort was covered in a positive (and accurate) light.
We have also organized a petition on Change.org titled “Empower Rochester’s Police Accountability Board Workers to Form the Union they have Chosen”, which we are pushing to get noticed by influential local politicians, activists, members of the labor movement, and anyone else who supports a worker’s right to representation.
As one of the most powerful civilian-run oversight agencies in the United States, the survival of our agency is critical and can serve as a roadmap for greater accountability of law enforcement across the country. As the first such agency to attempt to form its own union, we are proving that a separate union for civilian oversight agencies can protect this work from obstruction and be the key to reimagining public safety nationwide.