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US and World Politics

Police Don’t Belong in the Labor Movement

By Kim Kelly

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 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, 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. “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 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. 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 investigating the 2014 death of Freddie Gray.

Contracts sabotage accountability

Campaign Zero’s Check the Police 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 protect police through measures designed to shroud investigations in secrecy and discourage city governments from taking action, including 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 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 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 Police (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 downplaying George Floyd’s death, even as many other unions and the AFL-CIO itself released statements condemning police violence and affirming their solidarity 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 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, “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.”

Teen Vogue, June 25, 2020

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/what-to-know-police-unions-labor-movement