That our police are openly fascist is finally becoming apparent to a lot of liberals who really didn’t see it that clearly before. That means that a sizable percentage of the nation is seeing this for the first time. The police are openly declaring war on the nation. They are raising their fascist flag instead of the American flag. They are blinding good journalists. It is completely unacceptable and, again, more people are really seeing this.
So this leads to a very difficult question: what to do about police unions. The labor journalist Kim Kelly discusses this:
Today just 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, and labor laws bar a vast swath of workers (particularly those who are classified as independent contractors or who are undocumented) from basic labor protections. But police are a high-density union profession—which creates no small amount of distress to labor activists in a moment like this. True, the 2018 Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision on public-sector union organizing had some cop unions nervous about their membership rolls, but police forces remain heavily unionized throughout the country. Police unions represent hundreds of thousands of members in state, federal, and local jurisdictions. (The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest cop union, has more than 340,000 members.)
And most of these union members are independent from any other labor organizations—which means, in turn, that they’re at best marginally involved with the most pressing mission of today’s labor movement, which concentrates on organizing many of the same low-wage, service-sector communities of color who are disproportionately abused and harassed by police. It wouldn’t make any sort of strategic sense for police-affiliated unions to try and make nice with the rest of the movement. So that leaves one obvious, if tricky, option: abolishing police unions as part of the broader fight to defund, demilitarize, and ultimately dismantle the U.S. police force as it currently exists. Labor leaders should seize upon this crucial moment to fully embrace this aim—and some already have.
However, it’s not exactly a simple or straightforward proposition. The International Union of Police Associations, which represents over 100,000 law enforcement employees as well as emergency medical personnel, is officially affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States. Its membership comprises 55 national and international unions, and it counts 12 million active and retired members. But if the federation wants to prove that it’s seriously committed to racial justice and true worker solidarity, the AFL-CIO must permanently disaffiliate from the IUPA and sever its ties with any and all other police associations.
After all, the partnership between the police unions and the federation is hardly shatterproof. The IUPA only chartered with the AFL-CIO in 1979; since then, the cops’ union has expanded into affiliations with law enforcement and corrections officers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And much like the AFL-CIO-affiliated National Border Patrol Council, which has overseen its own brand of racist terror, police unions seem to realize they’re not exactly welcome among the unions that have been forced to accept them as peers.
“Legally, unions are responsible for representing their members,” Booker Hodges, a former Minnestota police officer who now works as an assistant commissioner for the state’s Department of Public Safety, wrote in a 2018 blog post on Police One. “The public seems to support this premise when it concerns other labor unions, but not those who represent police officers. Even members of other labor unions, particularly those who belong to educator unions, don’t seem to support this premise when it comes to police unions. Many of them have taken to the streets to protest against police officers, criticized police unions for defending their members and called for an end of binding arbitration for police officers.”
It’s also not as though the police unions’ leaders are taking any pains to show solidarity, or even sympathy, with their fellow workers. Rather, police unions have a long, wretched history of doing exactly the opposite: playing on public fears and misconceptions to push damaging “no angel” narratives about the victims of police violence, while also howling about the “bravery” and “sacrifice” their employees make to “protect” fellow citizens.
Here are my thoughts.
First, there is no evidence that police without unions are somehow less horrifying or violent than those with unions.
Second, all workers deserve collective bargaining rights.
Third, the labor movement is not about justice. It’s about two sides with sometimes divergent interests sitting down and bargaining.
Fourth, it is in the public’s interest to force the police unions to give up the blank check for violence that they currently have. That should be an absolute demand of any city negotiating with the police unions.
Fifth, the labor movement has no obligation to stand with unions that are awful. It is rare that the AFL-CIO kicks out unions–pretty much just the communist unions after Taft-Hartley and the Teamsters for corruption, though lots of unions have chosen to disaffiliate with the federation. There is no reason why the federation should not evict the police unions. The police unions are antithetical to the entire concept of solidarity.
Sixth, such a move would be more symbolic than anything else. It’s not as if the AFL-CIO provides invaluable resources for unions to survive.
Seventh, do not underestimate the potential support for police unions from the more conservative unions in the federation, particularly some of the building trades. Evicting the police unions would not be uncontested. Some unions absolutely support this. Others would be quite reticent.
Eighth, eliminating police unions may sound like a panacea for these problems of racism and violence and fascism, but it’s really not.
In conclusion, we can crack down on the police unions without eliminating them entirely. It is absolutely in the public interest that we do this. All of the behavior of the police is completely unacceptable. But it’s unlikely that unionbusting actually solves any of these problems.