The Salem Police Employees Union failed in an effort to unionize its sergeants after a state Employment Relations Board ruling in April. (Amanda Loman/ Salem Reporter)

The Salem Police Employees Union lost a legal battle that would have allowed sergeants in the police department into the officer’s union.

On April 15, Oregon’s Employment Relations Board ruled that sergeants in the Salem Police Department couldn’t create a bargaining unit because they’re considered “supervisory” employees under state law because they assign tasks.

The failure means 24 sergeants in the department won’t be able to access a retired healthcare trust provided by the union and are subject to healthcare cost increases not agreed upon by the union contract.

“It’s a reality. Healthcare is one of the big reasons,” said Scott Nowning, union president.

Nowning, said all of the sergeants in the department were in favor of joining the union. There are currently 163 members.

Oregon State Police, Portland Police Bureau and the Beaverton Police Department have sergeants in their unions, Nowning said.

Nowning said without having a contract, sergeants’ schedules can be adjusted “however someone feels willy nilly.”

The employment board’s ruling can be appealed. Nowning said they’re weighing their options before deciding if they want to appeal.  

In October 2019, the union petitioned the Employment Relations Board to create a new bargaining unit for sergeants. The board resolves labor relations disputes.  

The following month, the City of Salem filed objections to the petition finding that sergeants are supervisory employees under state law and can’t be included in a bargaining unit.

Emily DuPlessis-Enders, city spokeswoman, said the city objected to creating the bargaining unit because it’s incompatible for supervisors to be in the same labor union as those they oversee.

“We believe conflicted loyalties are more likely to occur when supervisors are in the same union as their staff- in this case the police union,” she wrote in an email.

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, a law professor at Willamette University, said Oregon’s Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act mirrors the National Labor Relations Act, which excludes supervisors from joining a union.

“Unions don’t like this exclusion. It has a long history of preventing many workers from collectively bargaining,” he said.

But the union’s case had a twist. Its defense tried to use a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Janus v. AFSCME, that found public employees couldn’t be required to join a union and turn it around to their advantage.

Janus at its core held that a union member’s First Amendment rights are so paramount that the state can’t charge everyone mandatory collective bargaining dues,” Cunningham-Parmeter said.

He said under that ruling, the union argued, the First Amendment protects the right to associate and PECBA can’t prevent supervisors from associating with one another.

The employment board didn’t accept that argument because the union didn’t raise it in time, according to the board’s ruling.

Right now, Cunningham-Parmeter said it’s cut and dry that supervisor can’t collectively bargain in Oregon. But he said there’s discussion nationally about the definition of a “supervisory” employee.

“It mirrors a larger national fight that is taking place between the Supreme Court in how to interpret that vague language. In recent years, the court has broadly interpreted this meaning of assigning tasks to a large group of workers much to the chagrin of unions,” he said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

BE PART OF OUR TEAM FOR SALEM’S BENEFIT: Accurate local information is vital for any community and that’s harder to come by in this day of “anyone can post anything” to social media. People in communities without trained journalists working for them don’t have accurate, trusted information. Help Salem avoid that fate – join in putting fuel in the tank of Salem Reporter to keep it growing, going strong. Here’s how:

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription starts at $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute any amount and you support giving the people of Salem local news otherwise missing. (You can also mail your contribution: Salem Reporter, 72585 Middle Fork Lane, Bates OR 97817)