That turnout is running high in the early voting on the ballot proposition in Minneapolis to eliminate the police department, reflecting the strong emotions on both sides of the so-called “defund” issue.

The conundrum has attracted national attention—and accompanying large out-of- state financial contributions—because it is regarded by many as a model for what might transpire or not occur in other municipalities beset by discontent with law enforcement, including within some quarters here in Duluth.

Proponents and detractors alike are hoping to celebrate the outcome come Election Day early next month. But in addition to celebratory emotionality, the question should be approached cerebrally, too.

Doing so illuminates the impracticality of the desire of many “defund” advocates to rid the city of its police union, which is viewed by many as a major culprit impeding reform in law enforcement in the community and minimizing racism within the ranks, among other undesirable features.

But, wait, not so fast. Eliminating the union would not necessarily result from a “Yes” vote on defunding. That’s because two years ago, in a precedent-setting decision,the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the City of Brainerd unlawfully terminated its small, five-member full-time fire department when it abrogated its contract with the firefighters’ union. The curtailment, the Court explained, violated the state Public Employees Labor Relations Act (PELRA), which governs management-labor relations in the public sector.

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The state measure, paralleling the Federal law covering private sector companies and workers, does not allow disbanding a union just by the whim of the municipality or even its voters. Instead, dispensing with a union requires a more elaborate process of negotiating with the union, ultimately leading to a de-certification by the union through consent of a majority of its members, a rarely invoked procedure.

The short-cut of trying to kill off the union by voting out-of-existence the department that employees its members won’t cut it under the law in this state. To the contrary, it would lead to prolonged disputes and ultimately costly, contentious, time-consuming, and uncertain litigation.

Voters in Minneapolis, perhaps setting a model for other communities, should be aware that it’s wishful thinking to anticipate that doing away with the police department will do the same to the union that represents its sworn officers.

It will survive, even if the department is defunct, and probably stick around as a force for whatever new law enforcement personnel are subsequently reincarnated, in the ambiguous words of the ballot proposition, “if necessary.”

Marshall H.Tanick


The writer is an employment and labor law attorney with the law firm of MEYER NJUS TANICK in Minneapolis-St. Paul.