Probation Officers Union: Bexar us the pain

AG backs out of subpoena to out anonymous bloggers on site formed by Bexar Co. probation officers to aid in unionizing effort

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is backing out of a subpoena to out anonymous bloggers on a site formed by Bexar Co. probation officers to aid in the department's effort to unionize. The news is a victory for probation officers locked in an ongoing struggle with Bexar Co. Probation Director Bill Fitzgerald, who they say is trying to put the kibosh on their organizing drive.

The whole debacle started in early December, when nearly 140 officers petitioned Fitzgerald, citing concerns over workplace safety after he stripped them of their firearms. Officers subsequently set up a meeting with Fitzgerald and a representative from the Service Employees International Union, to discuss the grievances. Fitzgerald at first agreed to meet with the union rep but canceled shortly thereafter. Then, just in time for Christmas, officers got a huge lump of coal in their collective stocking when Fitzgerald announced that all employees would have to reapply for their jobs in January and come in for mandatory, videotaped "retention interviews." Fitzgerald also said he would not hear officers' grievances as a group, but only on an individual basis, which officers fear he is doing in order to single out dissidents.

With the help of San Antonio attorney David Van Os, who also happens to be Abbott's political rival, officers struck back with a civil suit alleging Fitzgerald that had violated their free-speech rights. The AG's office stepped in to defend Fitzgerald and filed a motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that there was no "injury in-fact," since none of the employees had yet been fired. Not so, Van Os says. The interviews themselves were an injury since they intimidated many employees who otherwise would have elected to organize. "Chilling the exercise of constitutional rights is a legal injury," he said. "It's very well-established case law in cases involving First Amendment and freedom of association."

Despite some fears, the officers renewed their organizing drive, forming a blog called Bexar Me the Pain. The officers needed a safe space to organize because the interviews had created a climate of fear in the office, Probation Officer Sherri Simonelli said. "They don't even want us using the word 'union.'" With the interviews not even one-third finished, Fitzgerald had a sudden change of heart in May and announced he was calling them off. "What Fitzgerald did was so obvious and so flagrant that he's been retreating," Van Os said. "He's been crying uncle."

Uncle-crying aside, shortly after he canceled the interviews, Fitzgerald, under the auspices of the Attorney General's Office, filed a subpoena to Google requesting the IP addresses and identities of the posters on the officers' blog, ostensibly for evidence in the civil suit. "It just so happens that the attorney general put [the subpoena] in at the same time as he withdrew the interviews. It's like shaking your hand while stabbing you in the back," Simonelli said.

Simonelli and other officers filed a motion to quash three weeks ago, pushing Abbott to formally withdraw the request, though the withdrawal motion asserts the right to renew the request at any time. Criminal-justice blogger Scott Henson reported on his blog Grits for Breakfast a couple of weeks ago that a high-level source within the Attorney General's Office told him on conditions of anonymity that the AG has never requested an IP address from a service provider – even in online sexual-predator cases – and it wasn't the kind of precedent they wanted to set.

With the latest legal fight out of the way, probation officers are moving forward with plans to unionize. Within the next week, they will meet with reps from the United Steelworkers union, which represents their fellow officers in Dallas. Simonelli said the union has 60 members so far – 40 short of the number necessary to start a local. If the officers unionize, they won't have the right to collective bargaining, but they will finally win the right to submit grievances as a group.

Van Os said that although Fitzgerald stopped the interviews, the lawsuit will continue as planned. "We don't want the retaliation represented by the retention interviews to be repeated," he said. "By unilaterally rescinding the interviews, he's providing no guarantee."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Greg Abbott, Bexar Co. probation officers, Bill Fitzgerald, Service Employees International Union, David Van Os, Bexar Me the Pain, Sherri Simonelli, Scott Henson, United Steelworkers

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