Iron John

In five years PBA boss John Rivera has transformed his police union into a major political force

Rivera seemed poised for greater things. In 1990 he was elected to the union's board of directors. In 1992 he wanted to study for the lieutenant's exam, so he transferred from the detective unit to the catacombs of the property and evidence bureau, where he hoped the slower pace would allow more time.

But soon friends persuaded him to run for union president. In 1993 he beat incumbent Mike Clifton, 1174 votes to 1117. Perhaps it was sympathy for the underdog that motivated Rivera to run. Or maybe it was lust for power. He is not very philosophical about the move: "I thought I could do a better job."

Rivera traded the brown police uniform and holster for slacks and polo shirts. Today Dade taxpayers supply most of his $74,400 salary. Running the county's PBA has been a county-backed job for more than twenty years. Metro-Dade pays Rivera about $49,000 -- and the Dade PBA augments it by $16,400. The state PBA pays him roughly $9000 for serving as treasurer. He works full-time at the PBA building on NW 106th Avenue, not far from police headquarters.

The PBA is the collective bargaining unit for members in 27 police departments, including Metro-Dade's, as well as jail officers. The PBA not only negotiates on employees' behalf but provides lawyers in job-related disputes. The only Dade police departments not represented by the PBA are those of Miami, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables, which are represented by the FOP.

Rivera's first cause as union chief was to lobby state legislators. He pushed to help pass a bill extending benefits to widows and children of officers killed while on duty, even if the widow remarried. The bill passed in 1993. Next he interceded in a contentious matter in Sweetwater. PBA members complained that Chief Charles Toledo and his brother, Assistant Chief Ray Toledo, were abusing their authority. The officers told the union chief they were sometimes required to walk the chief's dog. Worse, they claimed the chief occasionally dropped paychecks on the floor, then kicked officers as they picked them up. Rivera's plan was to attack, using lawyers as the front-line troops.

"In the past we had to slink away with our tails between our legs. Now we file all kinds of legal paperwork. In Sweetwater we just hammered 'em, and hammered 'em every day until they had spent so much money the mayor called me up one day and said they were on the brink of bankruptcy." In the retelling, Rivera assumes a boxer's crouch. "I always felt you have to fight fire with fire, and in our particular business you have to fight lawyers with lawyers." Charles Toledo was fired in August 1993. Ray Toledo was axed in May 1995.

The legal skirmishing was part of Rivera's plan to reshape the organization. "I was very big on creating the most powerful law department this PBA had ever seen," he says. Now, not only does the union have six in-house lawyers, up from two when he started, but twenty more are on call. Some are on retainer.

Yet Rivera is willing to cooperate with management. In the early 1990s, West Miami Mayor Rebeca Sosa called Rivera personally and said the City didn't have money for raises. If the PBA would delay requesting more money, she would make it up later, the mayor said. She has been true to her word, giving raises and even gym exercise equipment for officers in 1995. Rivera is "wonderful to work with," she adds.

The PBA's pugnacity has allowed it to manipulate some municipalities, but not Hialeah. Relations between the union, which represents about 270 of 300 officers, and administrators of Dade's second-largest city are extraordinarily bitter. Cops are accused of vandalizing buses and booby-trapping a police car. This spring a 60-year-old PBA employee was arrested for slapping up stickers around the city predicting that both Chief Rolando Bolanos and Fidel Castro would die this year.

Escalating tensions even prompted a mutinous protest. Sixty-one officers signed a petition in January asking Rivera to tone down his attacks, contending they hindered contract negotiations.

Perhaps contract problems arose in Hialeah because Mayor Raul Martinez and Rivera are the same type of leader -- headstrong, persistent, and charismatic. Martinez continues to rule Hialeah despite a series of scandals. In 1990 he was convicted of racketeering and extortion related to a kickback scheme involving zoning applications. He remained free while appealing the verdict; in 1993 voters elected him back into office. In 1996, after three unsuccessful prosecutions, the case was dropped.

Relations between Rivera and Martinez have been sour for years. Each side portrays the dispute differently. Rivera, ever the gentleman, posits that Martinez was picked on as a child for being overweight and has been taking it out on the world ever since. "In high school they called Raul masa boba," Rivera remarks, using Spanish that translates roughly as "stupid blob." "He was bullied so much that he's turned out to be a monster."

Martinez's view of Rivera is similarly genteel: "He's a bully, and he uses outdated tactics. He uses the tactics of terrorism. I dislike the man. I dislike his personality, I dislike his looks, and there's nothing in this world that will get me to sit down with him."

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