The St. Louis Police Officers Association is suing St. Louis County, saying county officials have refused to begin contract negotiations since they unionized about a year ago.
The SLPOA represents 45 St. Louis County prosecutors and six investigators. They are looking to negotiate their hours, pay, assignments, job descriptions and transfers, said Neil Bruntrager, a lawyer representing the union.
“We made multiple attempts to ask them to sit down and negotiate with us,” Bruntrager said. “You’re obligated to negotiate with us under the constitution.
“This isn’t something that is discretionary on their part. Once there is a collective bargaining unit, they have to meet with us.”
Doug Moore, director of communications for St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, said in a statement that the county is amenable to negotiating with the group.
“The union has been in discussions with Mr. Bell, but this is the first time we’ve heard that they were interested in talking to us about it. Lawsuit or not, we will bargain with any properly-constituted union as the law requires. We will reach out to the union representatives to see where communications fell apart,” said Moore.
County prosecutors and investigators first talked about joining the St. Louis Police Officers Association shortly before prosecutor Wesley Bell unseated longtime incumbent Robert McCulloch in fall 2018.
It is a somewhat unusual move. Prosecutors and investigators in the city are not in a union. The choice of the city’s police union – which represents police officers – also was somewhat unusual.
But it was all strategic, Bruntrager said.
County prosecutors and investigators picked the St. Louis Police Officers Association to avoid any conflict of interest that could arise had they joined the county’s police union, he said.
“In order to preserve their jobs, they wanted to be sure they took advantage of what the constitution provides, so they organized and formed a union so they have a single voice,” Bruntrager said. “It’s not common, but it also does happen.”
The group also unionized out of fear of the unknown, Bruntrager said.
Bell was elected on a platform of sweeping reforms, and that also played a role in the staff’s decision to unionize, Bruntrager said.
“Obviously, they were listening to the people who were coming in and saying, ‘We’re making drastic changes,’ and without knowing what they are, the only protection they have is collective bargaining,” Bruntrager said.
In December 2018, 33 members of the prosecutor’s office voted via secret ballot in favor of joining the city’s police union and 11 opposed it – enough for a majority of the eligible voters.
On Jan. 4, 2019, then-police union President Ed Clark sent a letter to then-County Executive Steve Stenger and Bell requesting dates to begin bargaining and noted that there should be no “unilateral changes in working conditions without bargaining.” Those requests have since continued to Sam Page, who became county executive after Stenger was indicted in 2019.
“It’s been crickets,” Bruntrager said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the defendant in the lawsuit. St. Louis County is the target of the lawsuit.
Christine Byers is a reporter with 5 On Your Side, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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