According to their website, the Massachusetts State Police “protect all residents and visitors to the Commonwealth. We regularly partner with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies on investigations, operations, and training to make Massachusetts a safer place for all.”
With those words, they are proudly in the safety and protection business. So, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 should be a given. It’s a way to keep them safe from a deadly virus and protect themselves and the public. Instead, the union representing some 1,809 of them is taking Governor Charlie Baker to court over the vaccine mandate. On Wednesday, the union asked a Superior Court judge to delay implementation of Baker’s executive order, which calls for all executive branch employees to obtain COVID-19 vaccination by Oct. 17, or face disciplinary action, up to and including termination. According to an AP report, a lawyer for the State Police Association of Massachusetts argued that the deadline is arbitrary and interferes with collective bargaining between the union and the state.
A complaint filed by the union says the plaintiffs will suffer “irreparable harm” if an injunction isn’t granted. The union is asking the state to allow troopers who either have had COVID-19 previously, or choose not to get the vaccine due to personal beliefs, religion, or medical conditions, be allowed to take a weekly test and wear a mask while performing their duties. About 20 percent of troopers are reportedly unvaccinated.
On Aug. 19, Baker issued one of the nation’s strictest government vaccine mandates, requiring about 42,000 employees and 2,000 contractors to prove they have been vaccinated, or risk being fired. This order went further than other states, such as New York and California, which give workers the option of submitting to regular testing if they choose not to get vaccinated, the Globe reported.
The mandate represents a change of heart for Baker, who initially said he was reluctant to “kick somebody out of a job” because they wouldn’t get vaccinated. In announcing the new policy, he said it is now clear that the vaccine “is by far the most effective tool we have in our toolbox to make it possible to beat this thing.” Some unions welcomed the governor’s executive rule, while others threatened legal action to block it.
A court battle is not all bad. It can bring clarity to an issue dividing the country. There are legal arguments on both sides of a vaccine mandate, with supporters relying on the 1905 Supreme Court ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which gave the state great power by upholding its right to fine people who would not take a smallpox vaccine. However, mandate opponents insist that the Constitution limits the power of the state to “touch the body,” as Nicholas Tampio argued in a recent Globe Ideas piece. (Although, ironically, of course, many vaccine mandate opponents also support laws that give the state the power to take away a woman’s right to control her body by having an abortion.)
On the surface, the state police union is making a “my body, my choice” case when it asks for a test or mask option based on personal beliefs. But it appears what they really want is to be part of a contract negotiation. According to the complaint, the union is saying the state can’t unilaterally implement a mandatory vaccination policy “without first bargaining over the impact of its decision.” The mandate interferes with “a declared public policy” that encourages collective bargaining, the union argues. Of course, keeping the public healthy and safe is the competing public policy interest behind Baker’s mandate.
State police have every reason to embrace a policy devoted to public safety. Interaction with the public is a crucial and unavoidable component of their job. Because of that, they are at risk of getting COVID-19 from anyone with whom they come in contact. In fact, COVID-19 was the leading cause of law enforcement deaths in the first six months of 2021, according to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. According to the report, 71 officers died nationwide in the first six months of the year as a result of contracting COVID-19 in the course of their official duties. It’s worth noting that public employees who interact with the public also need safeguards and sick leave.
But they must be willing to do their part to stay safe and healthy. And that means getting vaccinated.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.