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How Black Lives Matter Can Be Turned Into Anti-Unionism


The issue of police unionism is very, very tricky. I hate the cops as much as anyone, but this is a situation where the move from slogan to policy is tricky. Sure, we could throw the main police union out of the AFL-CIO, though that’s more a symbolic move than anything that really matters. But there are two rubs. First, a lot of the conservative unions like the cops. Second, lots of unions represent cops. They include AFSCME, AFGE, SEIU, NEA, and AFT. In other words, some of the most progressive unions in the nation. What do they do? Kick the locals out of the union? Try to decertify the union?

Harold Meyerson notes just how complicated these questions are:

The third part, however, plunges the Federation into deeper waters. It asserts, quite reasonably, that cops, like all workers, should retain their right to collectively bargain. But it also rejects calls that the AFL-CIO should expel the one police union (the International Union of Police Associations, IUPA) that is directly affiliated with the Federation, or that the several AFL-CIO member unions that have police locals should similarly end those affiliations. In the past couple of days, two small unions—the Association of Flight Attendants and the Writers Guild of America, East—had called for the Federation to end IUPA’s affiliation. Instead, the General Board decided that working to improve its affiliated police unions was the better option.

Many of the union leaders who took this position understand all too well just how oppressive routine police practices are to their African American members and their families. Why, then, did they opt to keep the cops within the fold? In a few of these unions, police make up a nontrivial share of their dues-paying members, though in no union other than IUPA does that share exceed 7 or 8 percent. Another reason is that right-wing critics of public-sector unions—a group that includes virtually the entire Republican Party and its media allies—see the current loss of police-union legitimacy as a way to expand their attack on all public-employee unions. As an editorial that ran this Monday in the Washington Examiner put it, “Like other public-sector unions, teachers’ unions, in particular, police unions have become a powerful machine that defends officers against investigation, discipline, and dismissal, even when they deserve it.”

The Trumpian right loves cops, but they hate the teachers unions, AFSCME and SEIU even more, since those unions provide perhaps the largest and most effective liberal voter mobilization programs in virtually every election. When Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker effectively stripped public-employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights, he exempted police and firefighter unions from his diktat. But if Republicans need to throw those unions under the bus, too, in order to rid themselves of the other public-sector unions, they might just do it.

The vast majority of police unions do not belong to the AFL-CIO, its local federations, or its affiliates. Still, the precedent of stripping the right to bargain collectively from any group of public employees—at a time when some on the left are calling for withdrawing those rights from cops, and also when the Supreme Court has declared war against all public-worker unions with its Janus decision—makes some union leaders nervous, and rightly so.

Moreover, this is already moving into straight anti-union territory. I was not upset when I heard that Minneapolis was pulling out of bargaining with the police. And then I heard how the city was phrasing it.

The person tweeting it seems to be some kind of troll, but that’s not really the point here. The point is that this not language about police unions being uniquely bad. It is just standard anti-union language that unions get in the way of firing bad apples and are for lazy workers and don’t actually represent the good workers. This is….very bad. Unacceptable.

There are two questions we have to consider. First, do unions really make the cops more violent? Second, are there other ways to fight back against police without erasing the right of collective bargaining? Meyerson addresses these points directly:

However, if police unions have devised contracts that have allowed members to get away with murder—sometimes, literally—the solution is to make the elected officials they bargain with stop ratifying provisions that preclude police accountability, and start demanding actual disciplinary practices. This does not have to come at the cost of denying the right of these workers, or any workers, to bargain for wages and benefits.

Unions don’t make unionized cops more racist, abusive, violent, and sadistic than their non-union counterparts. The record of non-union police forces in the South and of America’s police before the 1970s, when cops and other public employees won bargaining rights, is every bit as racist and brutal, if not more so. Moreover, many police departments stink from the head down. The fact that only 14 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments chose to participate in the Obama administration’s signature police reform initiative is the result of decisions by mayors and police commissioners and chiefs, even if they were influenced by rank-and-file resistance from cops, whether unionized or not. Some particularly dangerous police practices—such as “kettling” (completely surrounding a public demonstration with heavily armed officers, making it impossible for anyone to leave and raising the possibilities for a violent encounter)—are devised by senior officials, not union members.

But if police unions don’t turn cops into dangerous thugs, they do enable many such thugs to enjoy long and violent careers. And as many police forces have drifted rightward with the Trumpian tide, some police unions have become breeding groups for a Trumpian hatred of residents they police. That seems a fair description of the Minneapolis union, and there are hundreds like it.

Right. In this situation–the public is management. I know the left doesn’t like to think in these terms, but it’s true. And our elected officials are who we choose to represent ourselves in these negotiations. For a very long time, white people basically did not support black lives, electing law and order mayors and governors. Maybe that is changing. We can note that these provisions such as legal protection for violence is not working for us as management and force the police unions to bargain it away. They might go on strike, but that’s fine. We can do that without just turning this into an attack on unions generally. But that seems to be where a lot of this is heading. And when the left supports one force of oppression to fight another form of oppression, nothing positive will result.

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