Before an ambitious police sergeant named Harold Flammia rose to the presidency of the San Antonio Police Officers Association in 1985, police pay was dismally low, a reflection of an unambitious city with poorly paid public servants.
Flammia was a new breed of tough police union leader. He had survived multiple bullet wounds suffered in a shootout with a burglar. While his rank was only sergeant, Flammia was shrewd, driven and organized. Flammia credits tutoring he received from other labor union experts about legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who famously said, “Change comes from power; and power comes from organization.”
San Antonio back then was a city of about one million people, but police pay was only 30th in Texas. By the time Flammia completed his four-year term, San Antonio police were the best paid in the state and some of the best paid in the nation.
“The San Antonio police collective bargaining agreement has become a famous document in police association circles throughout the United States,” Flammia would later write. “Between 1985 and 1989, San Antonio police officers rose from a mediocre wage and benefit package to one of the finest compensation plans in this country.”
Texas is an unfriendly state to unions, but San Antonio voters gave uniformed police and firefighters the right to collective bargaining in 1974, yet it wasn’t until Flammia became head of the police union that it learned to flex its political muscle.
The result was a new collective bargaining agreement in 1988 that for the most part still exists more than 25 years later. Higher base salaries, 17 “special pay” categories that elevate base salaries, premium-free medical, dental and optical healthcare insurance for all members and dependents; unlimited free legal services; and generous college tuition reimbursements even if the studies are in another field. Retirees earn up to 87 percent of their active duty salary, and they received the same premium-free healthcare as active duty officers.
Holiday pay? Triple and a half overtime pay for six of the holidays. Fiesta duty? Double pay. The package made the San Antonio Police Department a highly desired workplace, and all but eliminated turnover.
How did Flammia do it? He answers that question in a now lost chapter that he authored for a book titled, “Police Union Power, Politics, And Confrontation in the 21st Century,” published in 1997 by police union experts John Burpo, Ron DeLord and Michael Shannon.
DeLord, a semi-retired Georgetown lawyer, was hired by the San Antonio police union two weeks ago to represent it in contract negotiations that enter their fourth round of talks Tuesday, 10 a.m. at City Hall. The union fired Austin lawyer Craig Deats without any public announcement.
The book on empowering police unions at the negotiating table by DeLord and his co-authors was re-issued in 2008, under a new title, “Police Union Power, Politics, And Confrontation in the 21st Century.” Read my Sunday story on DeLord and the book here.
Chapter 36, titled, “Building Police Association Power — The San Antonio Experience,” was removed without notice from the second edition. The reasons are obvious. Flammia no longer makes a very good case study.
In May 1998, less than one year after the book was first published, Harold Flammia pleaded guilty to federal charges of fraud and money laundering and was sentenced to a 55-month federal prison term after federal agents uncovered $500,000 in kickbacks to Flammia from attorneys hired to manage the union’s lucrative legal fund. Flammia was ordered to repay the misappropriated funds as a condition of his plea agreement. Four lawyers also pleaded guilty in the case.
Flammia’s chapter obviously does not reveal anything about how he obtained and might have used illegal funds to win power and influence, but corruption has to be a consideration in gauging his success. The chapter also says nothing about why then-Mayor Henry Cisneros, City Council and City Manager Lou Fox and his staff were unable to negotiate a more balanced contract that would have elevated police pay without exceeding the city’s ability to pay for it as the years went by. Actuarial predictions were available at the time, but simply ignored.
For all that, Flammia does lay out his step-by-step approach to elevating the police union from an ineffective organization to one with unequaled financial and political influence with San Antonio’s elected leaders.
DeLord or one of his co-authors wrote this introduction to the Flammia chapter:
“The San Antonio, Texas police collective bargaining agreement is regarded as one of the finest public sector contracts in the country with respect to both benefits and rights. This chapter shows how the San Antonio Police Officers Association built a powerful political machine which was then used for leverage at the bargaining table. Harold Flammia is a veteran police sergeant with the SAPD and is credited with being one of the few visionary police labor leaders who could shape his organization into one of the truly powerful local “players” on the local political scene — very few other police associations in the country can claim this status.”
After analyzing the “movers and shakers” who wielded influence at City Hall, Flammia realized the police union needed money to become a “major player.” He started a political action committee and funded it with voluntary contributions of $4 a month from each officer. By the time he completed his four-team, the contributions had become mandatory and $16 a month. With 1,100 officers in the union, Flammia was amassing a war chest that grew by $17,000 a month.
The police union began making contributions to city council members and legislators and issuing endorsements in election years. They also built a state-of-the-art telephone bank and began collecting voter data so they could go directly to voters to support or oppose an elected official or candidate.
“Whenever a politician did not agree with our program of better pay and equipment, and more manpower, we would flood that person’s district with material advising constituents about this anti-police position. This tactic seemed to get the offending politician’s attention!” Flammia wrote. “We also gave our political friends copies of these voter lists free of charge, including who voted in the last election; and this contribution was invariably received with considerable thanks from the recipient.”
Access to funds enabled union officials to hire top legal, political and public relations talent, and as union power grew, Flammia and SAPOA became much more prominent at the state level and helped build up the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, known as CLEAT. This same organization elected Flammia as its treasurer, and it managed the union’s legal fund. Kickbacks to Flammia came from CLEAT lawyers.
Flammia recognized that San Antonio’s business community enjoyed considerable influence at City Hall. “It was essential that our association have the respect of the business community, because these are the people that ultimately hold sway over city hall,” he wrote.
The police union joined the then-“four different chambers of commerce (including the one for Hispanics) allowing our representatives to attend the chambers’ meetings and social functions, and to be seen and heard.”
Once inside, union officers compiled lists of chamber members and targeted them with mailings. The tactic worked. Flammia said he was asked to meet with a “group of the most powerful (and very concerned!) San Antonio businessmen and women to speak about our problems. Looking back, this meeting was a pivotal moment in our drive for the goals we were seeking.”
Flammia also used union funds to win community support and build the police image. SAPOA made regular contributions to certain churches, charities and non-profits.
“We made certain that these contributions were well publicized, and often made such contributions to charities that were favored by political leaders and business leaders,” Flammia wrote. “Although this last observation might seem a bit cynical, it was good business and left the association in a stronger position to achieve its goals.”
The union also supported, politically and financially, city bond elections, which they knew were critically important to staff and elected officials and moving the city forward.
Flammia used nearly two pages to list itemized gains by the union during collective bargaining, and then talked about the agreement’s long-term benefits, which included nearly zero turnover, enviable recruitment, a newfound sense of empowerment within the police force and a feeling that the pay was commensurate with their service and the danger inherent in police work. Flammia regarded the contract won under his tenure as a model for police unions across the nation to emulate.
“San Antonio is one of the few major cities in the United States where a police association and city are not at war over wages and benefits,” he wrote. “Everyone benefits when there is labor peace in the police department.”
Flammia concludes his chapter, written years after his four-year term as a president of SAPOA, by noting that the richness of the San Antonio contract led to criticism from some elected officials and the public as the true costs to taxpayers became evident and people became aware of what city officials had conceded to the union. Flammia counseled his successors to be vigilant in maintaining political power and knocking down any challengers.
“It is a truly wonderful feeling to be on top of the mountain,” Flammia concluded. “The view from up here is grand indeed! But always remember, when you are on top, there is only one place to go, and that is down.”