[News] There’s No Room for Police Unions in the Labor Movement

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Jun 28 15:15:17 EDT 2020

No Room for Police Unions in the Labor Movement
*(Not mentioned are Prison Guard Unions - Ed)*

Kim Kelly - June 25, 2020

Massive protests against police brutality, and in pursuit of justice for
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other Black lives that have been
lost to police violence, have flooded cities and towns in all 50 states,
and calls to defund the police — or abolish the police altogether
— have become a rallying cry. As members of the police brutalize protesters
on-camera and their leaders defend their actions
police unions have also come under closer scrutiny from labor activists,
rank-and-file union members, and others concerned about the power that
these peculiar institutions maintain. These associations play a major part
in upholding the evils of police brutality, racism, and white supremacy,
yet they are often tucked into the background. It’s high time to shine a
spotlight on cop unions.

Police unions have always been outliers among organized labor, and there
are many reasons why the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union has
long refused
<https://archive.iww.org/PDF/Constitutions/CurrentIWWConstitution.pdf> to
allow cops (and prison guards) into its organization. For one thing, no
other union members hold the legal ability to straight-up kill another
human being while on the job. If an ironworker bashed someone’s head onto
the concrete, or a retail worker shot someone in the back as they were
running away, or a graduate student worker ground their knee into someone’s
neck until they stopped breathing, there would be consequences. Actually,
police unions themselves used to be illegal
because local governments worried about the consequences of allowing armed
state agents to organize. And historically speaking, the police have been
no friend to workers, whether officers were shooting at the families of
coal miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain
crushing the ribs of immigrant garment workers
during the Uprising of the 20,000
<https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/uprising-of-20000-1909>, or teargassing
working-class protesters
in Minneapolis after police killed George Floyd.

As author Kristian Williams explains
in *Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America*, police unions
developed in relative isolation from the rest of the labor movement, and
their reliance on institutional solidarity is vastly different from the class
consciousness that powers the organizing of other workers
<https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-is-class-solidarity>. “The police are
clearly part of the managerial machinery of capitalism,” Williams writes
“Their status as ‘workers’ is therefore problematic. Second, the agendas of
police unions mostly reflect the interests of the institution (the police
department) rather than those of the working class.”

Williams argues
that the shared workplace identity that makes up the “thin blue line”
mentality for cops transcends other identity markers, and shows how they
view themselves as *police* first, and everything else second. As such,
police unions tend to keep their distance from the rest of the labor
movement (unless they’re cracking its members’ skulls). Even the basic
terminology is different. These organizations
<https://www.thestrikewave.com/editorials/opinion-defund-the-police> are
usually broken down into “lodges” instead of “locals,” and are more often
known as “associations
rather than unions. Some people balk at the thought of referring to police
associations as “unions” at all, and it’s understandable why, though for
the sake of this piece, we’ll hold our noses and use the more common term.
Labor unions exist to protect people; police exist to protect property
<https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/>. They may carry their
version of union cards and enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining
agreements, but that’s about where the similarities
between cops and unionized workers end.

Collective bargaining agreements like the ones that protect many unionized
workers aren’t necessarily the problem; police are state employees, and the
contracts they work under are not always entirely dissimilar from those
that protect public sector workers. The agreements that are different,
though, are part of the reason it can be so hard to fire officers
who have committed even the most horrific abuses or murder, and they allow
police officers privileges
that go above and beyond what a normal worker might expect. Contracts that
include so-called “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights” language are even
worse, giving
cops extra protections
when they face investigations over use of force; in Baltimore, for example,
these protections have been blamed for getting in the way of properly
the 2014 death of Freddie Gray.

Campaign Zero’s Check the Police <https://www.checkthepolice.org/#project>
initiative analyzed police union contracts in 81 major U.S. cities, and
found a number of dangerous commonalities in how these contracts sabotage
accountability. Many of these contracts
<https://www.checkthepolice.org/#review> protect police through measures
designed to shroud investigations in secrecy and discourage city
governments from taking action, including
<https://www.checkthepolice.org/#review> preventing police officers from
being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident, and,
most egregiously, limiting disciplinary consequences. It should be obvious
by now why this is a problem — Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed George
Floyd, had 18 prior misconduct complaints
and his record is hardly unique.

Contracts aside, the biggest problem with police unions is the
institutional power they wield, and the ways they choose to wield it.
They’ve amassed enormous political capital
through lobbying and cultivating relationships with politicians, including
President Trump. And all too often, these apparent labor organizations
advise cops on how to avoid being reprimanded for misconduct, act as a
shield to prevent killer cops from facing consequences, and try to force
the reinstatement of those who actually do get fired or charged. As I wrote
<https://newrepublic.com/article/157918/no-cop-unions> in the *New Republic*,
when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was finally fired for his role in the
2014 death of Eric Garner, the city’s police union immediately appealed for
his reinstatement and threatened a work slowdown — a classic union tactic
that the cops used here to try and strong-arm a killer back onto the force.

Politically, police associations tend to skew much more conservative (or
full-on right wing) than most labor unions, which are usually more
progressive, or at least in line with mainstream Democratic policies.
Virulent racism and white supremacy
<https://www.charlotteobserver.com/article243779512.html> are also known to
be a deadly problem
within the ranks of law enforcement. After a flurry of Democratic
candidates courted the favor of police unions during the primaries, a
number of major unions have thrown their support behind Joe Biden’s
presidential bid, but, in 2019, the International Union of Police
Associations (IUPA) had already voiced its full-throated support
for Trump’s reelection, becoming the first — and still only — union to do
so. (In 2016, the country’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of
(FOP), and the National Border Patrol Council
endorsed Trump, making up his only union endorsements.) The IUPA is the
only law enforcement union in the American Federation of Labor and Congress
of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the country’s largest and more
influential labor federation, and the IUPA has had a particularly
acrimonious relationship with its ostensible allies and a terrible record
on social justice. In 2014, during the Ferguson uprising, the IUPA clashed
with the AFL-CIO over police brutality; more recently, it reposted a May 27
article <https://newrepublic.com/article/157918/no-cop-unions> downplaying
George Floyd’s death, even as many other unions and the AFL-CIO itself
released statements condemning police violence and affirming their
solidarity <https://aflcio.org/speeches/trumka-black-lives-matter> with
Black Lives Matter.

On top of that, a parade of police union officials have recently been
caught spewing racist invective and inflammatory, misinformed rhetoric
about Black Lives Matter protesters. In May, as massive Black Lives Matter
protests roiled Philadelphia, the city's police inspector Joseph Bologna
was caught on video beating multiple protesters
and was subsequently charged
with aggravated assault. The politically formidable
president of Philadelphia’s FOP Lodge
John McNesby, told reporters that he was “disgusted
by the fact that Bologna had been charged at all. The union is currently
selling “Bologna Strong” merchandise on its website; meanwhile, one of the
people he attacked required
staples and sutures. McNesby — who notoriously referred
to BLM protesters as “a pack of rabid animals” during a 2017 press
conference — is now spending his time railing against
a planned independent evaluation of the police department’s use of force
during the protests, during which cops were caught on video attacking
protesters and teargassing a crowd of people
trapped on a blocked-off highway. Circumstances like these explain why so
few people trust that police unions are capable of meaningful reform, or of
cleaning out all those “bad apples” that have already spoiled the bunch.
It’s also a major reason why so many labor activists and rank-and-file
members have called on union leadership to kick out the cop unions once and
for all.

And yet, the thin hope of reform seems to be the party line even for
nominally progressive labor leaders. It is true that there are cops
scattered throughout the membership rolls of multiple major unions, and
that excising them would be a complex process. Critics argue
that weakening or cutting ties with police unions could have a negative
impact on public sector unions as a whole, and the AFL-CIO has been
publicly resistant
to the idea. When the Writers Guild of America, East (for which I am a
member and councilperson), became the first AFL-CIO affiliated union
to explicitly
call on the federation to expel the IUPA
many of its members — several of whom had been arrested
while trying to cover protests
— cheered on the move. “As long as police unions continue to wield their
collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and
accountability, no one is safe,” the resolution read. The AFL-CIO’s
response was tepid, at best. In a statement
that also called for the resignation of Minneapolis police union president
Bob Kroll, the AFL-CIO instead called for reform
insisting that the answer was to "engage [police] unions rather than
isolate them."

Meanwhile, smaller locals
and member unions <https://www.afacwa.org/black_lives_matter> have been
making their own stances clear, and keeping up the pressure. Rank-and-file
members of various unions are brainstorming ways to push their leadership
into action. And, to be clear, disaffiliating from the IUPA is one small
step toward a much bigger goal, and is more a moral choice than a political
one. Even if the AFL-CIO expelled every single cop in every single one of
its affiliate unions tomorrow, the cops themselves would be fine; they’d be
welcomed with open arms into other independent police associations. But the
cognitive dissonance that comes with knowing that members of *my* union are
being beaten bloody and viciously arrested by members of *another* union
that falls under that *same* AFL-CIO umbrella is sickening, as is the
knowledge that we will have to fight our own leadership to force a change.
But I know that there are a great many of us who are up for the challenge,
and this battle is far from over.

As famed abolitionist and labor leader
Frederick Douglass wrote so cogently in 1857
<https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1245>, “Let me give you a word of
the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human
liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been
born of earnest struggle.… If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

*Want more from* *Teen Vogue**? Check this out:* Class Solidarity: What It
Is and How You Can Engage in It

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