Political Action: You Can’t Just Sit Around And Expect Change

by WPPA Director Dale Marsolek
President, Arcadia Professional Police Association

“How can we make a difference?” “We are just a small agency.” “We don’t have any political pull with our elected officials.” “I don’t want to get involved.” “They just have no idea what we do and what we need to do our job!”

These are just a few of the comments that I hear on a regular basis from WPPA members concerning political action. Well, I’m telling each and every one of you that if you believe in the above statements, you are selling yourself, and your local, short.

A case in point is the following. In 2003, the members of my local decided to band together for the common good, forming the Arcadia Professional Police Association, WPPA Local 300. At the time, we primarily looked at this action as an “insurance policy.” Based on the relationship we had with our mayor, city council, and city attorney, we knew that we would be “thrown to the wolves” if something detrimental were to happen to one of us. Further proof of this possibility was the fact that of the six council members, three had previously been arrested by our department, or had arrest records for OWI, domestic incidents, and possession of drugs.

These three members in particular had a not-so-hidden agenda, which was to make life as difficult as possible for our members, often by draconian threats to cut our funding or our benefits. All legally protected actions, mind you, as we are an agency serving a population of less than 2,500, which prevents us from having the right to binding arbitration under Wisconsin State Law.

We entered into contract negotiations with the city, not asking for anything extraordinary. We just wanted a level playing field that wouldn’t be subject to change at a moment’s notice (or after the arrest of a council member or a friend of a council member).

Needless to say, we had virtually no bargaining power. Negotiations effectively came to a grinding halt a little over two years later. At that time, a state mediator was brought in to try to bridge the impasse on a number of issues.

Things then went from bad to even worse. After the mediation session, the mediator stated that, in his 20-plus years of experience, he had never participated in a mediation where things went “backwards.” We were now faced with the prospect of having more taken away from us, and still we didn’t have any bargaining power to make it better. Plus, we now had enraged those council members who had been against us even more by doing what we legally had every right to do.

It was at this point that we had an epiphany. It was such a simple prospect that I was mad at myself for not considering it earlier. With there being no way to change the mind of a council member, we decided that we would do what we could to change the makeup of the council itself. It was a novel idea that was long overdue.

In the following election, three council seats and the mayor were up for reelection. We successfully recruited two very pro-public safety candidates for two of those positions. We also had a very strong influence in helping the only council member that had been friendly toward us find an acceptable candidate for the other contested council seat.

That left us with the mayor’s position. We felt that he was a hindrance to our ability to further our goals of gaining equality and fairness. With that frame of mind, we actively sought out a candidate for mayor.

We actively worked to promote these candidates by means that cost us nothing. We did simple things, such as talking to people and answering citizen questions when we were asked. We even guided some of the candidates through the candidate registration and nomination paper process.

The end result was truly amazing, as all of the candidates we supported for council and mayor won.

The importance and significant lesson from this accomplishment cannot be overstated. In the course of some two and a half short years, we were able to effect a change of four of the seven people who made decisions about matters that would affect our livelihoods! Perhaps best of all, this was accomplished without spending a dime.

Currently, negotiations have taken a major turn for the better, and we anticipate having a fair and equitable contract for both sides completed shortly. This never would have been possible unless we had decided to take control of our own destiny instead of passively waiting for good things to come to us.

While this is where our story ends, it is also where each and every one of you should take notice. If your group is one of those that sits back and just watches things happen, then you are getting what you deserve, just as we were before we became politically active.

If you truly want to make things happen and become problem solvers, then your local association needs to take charge of your affairs and force change if and when it is needed. Unity is a major part of what unions are all about.

If you have read the article up to this point, please take this away from it, if nothing else: You can make a political difference no matter the size of your local or how much money you have.

More and more WPPA locals are becoming politically active for the benefit of their members. Combined with the improved effectiveness of the WPPA’s legislative efforts, we as individual members should feel emboldened knowing that we matter and we can make a difference. I, for one, am glad my local decided that sitting on the sidelines was no longer acceptable. We got organized and got in the game. Perhaps you should too.

For more information about becoming politically active in your own communities, contact WPPA Assistant Executive Director Jim Palmer, either by telephone at 1.800.362.8838, or by e-mail at palmer@wppa.com.

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