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Black Labor Organizers Urge AFL-CIO to Reexamine Its Ties to the Police

United Auto Workers members have led a push for the AFL-CIO to dissolve its relationship with an international police union.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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The rise of the Movement for Black Lives got Brandon Buchanan and some of his fellow graduate student employees in the University of California system thinking. Many of them had taken part in the protests rippling across the country, and the movement had also inspired them to think about what they could do within their own union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, to deal with questions of racism and anti-Blackness close to home.

“To get our voices heard we realized that we needed to come together to form a committee that specifically addressed the needs of Black workers in the union,” Buchanan, a graduate student in sociology at UC Davis, told Truthout.

The Black Interests Coordinating Committee was born out of this effort to “call out our fellow union members, and call them in to an anti-racist union,” he added. But the committee’s members also wanted to have an impact on the broader conversation in the labor movement around racism, police violence and the role of labor in a racial justice movement.

“We were seeing a number of police unions and associations criticizing Black activists for addressing the needs of their communities, and actively working to cover up and dismiss issues of police brutality in their departments,” Buchanan said. Most of those police unions are already outside of the major labor federations, but the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) is a member of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions. And when members of the Black Interests Coordinating Committee did some reading of IUPA leaders’ statements on police killings and the union’s website, they found what Buchanan describes as “articles in which questions of Black civilian life were downplayed to the benefit of the police officers’ narrative.”

UC Davis was the site of one of the most famous images of police brutality in recent years, at least before the National Guard troops rolled into Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago to quell protests over the death of Michael Brown. Pictures and video clips circulated around the world of University of California police officer John Pike casually pointing a can of pepper spray at student protesters seated on the ground and spraying them all, point-blank, in the face. That incident, as well as the acquisition by Davis police of the same kind of mine-resistant armored vehicle that drew attention in Ferguson, helped frame the graduate workers’ conversation about the role of the police in suppressing protest.

“They always seem to be out there ready to defend and support the status quo,” Buchanan said. “We realized, if we want to begin this conversation, if we want to address the fact that police are inimical to labor broadly and Black workers in particular, then we need to start with this organization.”

On July 25, Buchanan presented a letter to the joint council of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations. “Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of police as laborers,” the letter said. “Instead, their ‘unionization’ allows police to masquerade as members of the working-class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the oppression of the working-class.” The joint council voted to endorse the call, and the letter was sent to the AFL-CIO’s leadership.

They have yet to receive a response from the labor federation, but the IUPA’s response in public has been dismissive. Dennis Slocumb, its legislative director, told Workers Independent News, “It’s impossible to stand for the rights of working class people while opposing the people in law enforcement. We are working class. And we think this is nothing but a publicity stunt for a group that’s struggling for some sort of attention.” He also criticized the group for singling out his organization, and stressed that the IUPA doesn’t condone illegal actions by police officers.

But the resolution has had at least some of its desired effect already. One goal of the letter, Buchanan said, was to encourage unions to take a stand on issues of racial and economic disparity and to have those conversations out in the open. By pushing the question of the role of police unions to the front, the Black Interests Coordinating Committee and UAW Local 2865 have gotten more people talking about the role police play, both in the labor movement and in the broader society.

Police Unions and Organized Labor: A Strained History

Almost exactly a year ago, after Michael Brown was shot on the street in Ferguson, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka signed a letter to President Obama calling for monitoring of police departments that “too often treat low-income neighborhoods populated by African Americans and Latinos as if they are military combat zones instead of communities where people strive to live, learn, work, play and pray in peace and harmony.”

When he spoke at the Missouri state AFL-CIO convention, Trumka told the crowd, “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.”

In response to Trumka’s comments, Sam Cabral, president of the IUPA, accused Trumka of having an “agenda” in speaking out, and wrote, “While there are those in the world that accuse all law enforcement of maintaining an ‘us versus them’ mentality, you can bet on one thing – so long as they use as a symbol of their movement the man who assaulted and tried to disarm a police officer who was doing his duty – I will be on the other side of that line.”

Police unions have long had a tenuous relationship with the rest of the labor movement, though, and in part that is because in the age-old labor cry of “which side are you on?” the police have often been on the side of those trying to break strikes, jail organizers and crack down on public protests. “Many unionists were very loath to think of a policeman as part of labor or to admit police groups into organized labor,” said historian Joshua Freeman. “That attitude continues although usually pretty quietly among some unionists to this day. Often, by the way, fairly conservative building trades types, who know that long history.”

In other words, it’s not simply political conservatism that puts the police on the opposite side from the labor movement – it is the specific social position they occupy as the enforcers of law, an enforcement that Buchanan notes is often quite selective.

Police unions began mostly as fraternal or benevolent associations, many of which date back to the 19th century. They often, Freeman noted, had strong ties to local political machines and were involved in lobbying the legislature for benefits for their members long before collective bargaining was codified into law.

Alex Vitale, a sociologist who studies the police, told Truthout that the insularity that is commonly associated with police culture long predates the establishment of unions as well. Unionization, he noted, played a somewhat interesting role in the steps away from the old corrupt ward-boss appointment system and toward professionalization. “From a police perspective they see it as a form of professionalization: Let the experts on crime-fighting fight crime. We don’t want to be pulled one way after each election. We don’t want elected officials calling us up to tell us how to treat this victim or this crime problem,” he said.

“These unions have never been as bureaucratized as some of the other unions, and I think they more directly reflect a kind of day-to-day mutuality among these workers,” Freeman said. “In this regard, police are a lot like construction workers and certain other kinds of workers who face great dangers and whose safety and survival depends upon their bonding with their coworkers. Those groups tend to have enormous levels of solidarity [among their members] and also sometimes to be kind of insular, [with an] inside-outside kind of divide.”

The due process procedures and protections that police unions won for their members, though, have helped contribute to that insularity in a way; police union representatives, Vitale notes, play a particular role in advising officers on questions of propriety and the law. The most obvious example of this was in November 2014, when the New York police officer charged with shooting Akai Gurley in a stairwell in the public housing building where Gurley lived reportedly contacted his union rep before reporting the shooting.

“You could have a due process system, but you could place some limits on it so that it looks more like the due process that most workers get,” Vitale said. “They’ve carved out some pretty extraordinary protections for themselves. There are states where if a doctor is accused of malpractice, that’s a public document, but if a police officer is accused of misconduct, that’s sealed from public scrutiny.”

This case also dramatizes the real difference between police and other workers: The former are the ones who carry a gun and are allowed to shoot to kill.

Lessons From Wisconsin and Ohio

In 2011, when the attempts to destroy labor unions for good began in earnest in Wisconsin and then in Ohio, they started with a divide-and-conquer strategy. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union bill that took apart collective bargaining rights for public employees carved out an exception for the state’s police and firefighters; while the firefighters notably took part in the protests against the bill anyway (their state union president becoming one of the movement’s most visible faces), the police were quieter. Some police unions continued to support Walker through the recall attempt and in his re-election.

Ohio’s movement succeeded in overturning the similar bill, in part because it was possible to put the bill itself on the ballot without having to remove Gov. John Kasich, and in part because Kasich made the mistake of including police and firefighters in the bill, pushing them to get involved in a broad labor struggle out of basic self-interest. That move badly backfired on him, as Mike Weinman of the Fraternal Order of Police explained to me in 2012, when the police took a very active role in working with the rest of the labor movement to overturn the bill. “A lot of this stuff was new to us; we hadn’t really dealt with this type of issue before, so it’s kind of different for us to sit at a table with all these folks,” he said. “It worked out pretty well, but there was some apprehension there for a little while.”

The coalition was notable in part because it was so rare. As Weinman said, the Fraternal Order of Police is not part of the AFL-CIO; its national constitution forbids it from joining any federation, as it prefers to stand alone. While some police are organized with major unions that are part of a federation – including, it’s worth pointing out, the UAW itself – the big police unions have made a point of standing outside of organized labor. The police may be working-class, as the IUPA’s Dennis Slocumb said, but they don’t seem to see themselves as being like other workers.

Buchanan recalls a recent community forum in Davis around the death of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody, when a police officer came to the forum “in full uniform, with weapons.” What that demonstrated, he said, was “that the police officer first thought of themselves as a police officer and not a member of a community.”

While officials have often carved out special conditions for police officers and firefighters, Freeman noted, there have also been times when they refused to. And there have also been moments when police have been “swept up in a kind of sense of solidarity with the rest of labor and been welcomed.” During the great strike wave of 1919, for example, the police in Boston struck and sought to join the AFL. They were supported by labor – and crushed by the federal government. “It was really in the course of that strike that the notion that public employees were different than other workers, in that they threaten the sovereignty of the state if they went on strike, was really developed and of course it lives with us to this day,” Freeman added.

The willingness of law-and-order officials (a position that has been bipartisan for decades in the United States) to grant police special treatment is tenuous too, in other words. Vitale notes that many politicians curry favor with police not because they want police votes but as part of “culture-war” politics. “In some ways they’re used by these politicians to advance their own political careers,” he said, “without actually giving two whits about the well-being of cops on the street.”

Roger Toussaint, the former president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York, wrote in January to remind the police unions how quickly that support can evaporate, and to call on them to “think hard about where their better interest lies and who their true allies are.” He wrote, “Having worked to isolate them from the communities they serve as privileged and singing them praises as ‘the finest,’ ‘the bravest,’ ‘first responders,’ they switched up on cops and firefighters, declaring their pensions to be ‘unsustainable’ and depicting them as undeserving recipients of welfare.” But instead, the leadership of the city’s police unions, he wrote, was “to the interests of the rich and powerful,” even though efforts to diversify the city’s unions meant that a lot of police now have children, uncles and friends who look like Eric Garner or other people targeted by the police. He suggested that not just elected officials, but perhaps hardline union leaders as well might not be doing their best by the members.

In this context, Buchanan said, “We recognize that police … sometimes are workers who make very little money, oftentimes receive very little benefits in terms of the capitalist system that we live in and we want to recognize that, but we’re also arguing that despite the fact that in some ways they are materially not supported by society, their job means they are supporting the very system that keeps them in these positions.”

There is the question of whether, if the AFL-CIO did disaffiliate itself from the International Union of Police Associations, this might simply further drive the police behind the “thin blue line,” increasing their insularity and their sense of victimhood. But to Buchanan, it is more important to consider whether Black people and other marginalized people remain excluded from the labor movement. “I would argue that Black workers who have not taken up this historical insularity and anti-labor action should be made central to our political actions and central to our organizing.”

It is unlikely, Vitale said, that by keeping police inside the broader labor movement that they would become part of a social justice movement for change. But by raising the question in a labor context – rather than in an external call to break police unions, which might echo right-wing rhetoric against public sector unions as a whole – the Black Interests Coordinating Committee and UAW Local 2865 offer the police unions the unlikely chance to demonstrate real solidarity. He added, “This isn’t to say, ‘Police just go on your own.’ It is a call out; it is asking, ‘What are you doing to center these communities?’ If they’re not able to do that, that supports our point about the logics of policing.”

The problem with the police, in other words, is not that they have unions, but that they are police.

Police Participation in Job Actions

In New York City, after Eric Garner was killed by police officer Daniel Pantaleo, some of the city’s unions decided to take a stand. Notably, the United Federation of Teachers endorsed a march protesting Garner’s death, despite some anger from its own rank-and-file members (many of whom protested by wearing pro-NYPD T-shirts to the first week of school) and an outraged open letter from Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association head Patrick Lynch. Lynch wrote, “It is absolutely ridiculous that [UFT president Michael Mulgrew] … would waste his members’ dues to get involved with a march that has nothing to do with teachers or his union,” and demanded to know, “How would he like it if police officers lined up with the activists who oppose his efforts to shield bad teachers and undermine effective charter schools?”

This kind of threat illustrated the idea of solidarity held by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association rather well – demeaning the teachers’ union’s fight and rhetorically taking the side of its opponents, while implying that his own union’s performance of solidarity deserved reciprocity. The police unions, Vitale points out, are part of a municipal labor coalition with the teachers that bargains health benefits with the city, a fact that underlined the tension between the two and is a factor in other unions’ decision to speak out against police.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that labor unions have had a major dispute around policy or politics. The biggest current example might be the Keystone XL pipeline, on which major unions are deeply divided – those whose members might get jobs out of the construction of the pipeline in support, while others, like National Nurses United, stand in firm opposition. The difference between the pipeline debate and the police debate, Buchanan told Truthout, is in part that, “These organizations are at least in some way listening to other people in the labor movement; there’s a conversation happening around it. There are going to be different views, and I don’t think that being completely toe-the-line is all that helpful or realistic. However, being open to reform, being open to addressing those problems is the very least that we can do for each other and I have not seen police unions or police associations take even that step.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had campaigned on reforming the police, particularly its “stop-and-frisk” practices (which, like all police policies, were enforced from the top rather than instituted by the rank and file), and spoke out in response to Garner’s death, angering the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the other police unions. But after two NYPD officers were shot and killed in December, after the mayor mentioned having to teach his biracial son, Dante, to take special care around police officers, NYPD officers engaged in what looked an awful lot like a slowdown. Arrests for minor offenses dramatically declined, ironically giving police reform advocates exactly what they’d asked for – a decline in “broken windows”-style policing of the kinds of small infractions that drew the attention of police to Garner in the first place.

The NYPD, of course, was not doing so in solidarity with the community activists, and denied that there was a job action at all. But, Freeman noted at the time, the police were engaged in what leftists within the labor movement often wish unions would do more of. “There’s a great deal of solidarity, a great deal of projecting of values, and they’re very militant,” he said. There have been other strikes in the city where the interests of workers were pitted against the interests of the community, like the 1968 teachers’ strike, where the mostly white United Federation of Teachers had challenged the mostly Black community school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn (a history that was evoked by both the United Federation of Teachers’ decision to take part in the Garner march and the backlash by mostly white teachers against it). “There are these moments where the whole issue of labor power versus the needs of the whole society comes up,” Freeman said, “and often that comes up as glib, right-wing, self-interested blather, but I think right now we do need to think about that.”

Some of the worst qualities of police unions are not unlike some of the worst qualities of non-police unions – shortsighted bargaining on behalf of their members only at the expense of other members of society. But, Freeman noted, police can often get away with things that other workers can’t; during the 1970s fiscal crisis, he said, police threw massive demonstrations blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. “There’s a little bit of a sense of greater license that they have as well,” he said. “Who’s going to take them on?”

Anti-Racist Commitments in the Labor Struggle

In contrast with both the 1960s teachers’ strikes in New York and the 2015 police demonstrations, the Chicago Teachers Union, during its strike in 2012, explicitly aligned itself with the students and the broader community, challenging school closures they called racist and bringing an intersectional awareness of the inequality that Chicago residents faced. That kind of social movement unionism is much closer to what Buchanan and the Black Interests Coordinating Committee want to see going forward, with unions actively bringing anti-racism to their struggles.

UAW Local 2865 has members who, like some members of the United Federation of Teachers, have family and friends who are in law enforcement and are worried that they might alienate potential members with their stance on ousting the International Union of Police Associations. “Our central response to that was this wasn’t about individual people being bad,” Buchanan said. “There are lots of people who are working this job and want to keep people safe and individuals who think that they’re doing good work. That’s what we’re uniquely placed as a union to address. Our perspective should be one of broad societal institutions rather than what neoliberalism encourages us to do, which is to think of ourselves as unique individuals who make choices.”

The argument that Local 2865 is making relies on an explicitly anti-capitalist analysis, one that sees the purpose of the labor movement not just to bargain better contracts for its workers but to struggle for a just society, beyond exploitation. They hope that the labor movement can have a conversation that is intersectional, and that understands struggles for Black liberation, queer liberation and women’s liberation as part of the economic and labor struggle. In that vein, they call for abolition of the police as an institution, a statement that Buchanan said also raised some questions among the membership. “When we talk about abolition we can discuss what that looks like,” he said. “If the police are addressing police brutality, if they are addressing anti-Blackness, if they don’t rely on those things to uphold what is considered law and order, they wouldn’t look like the police we know.”

Moving forward, Buchanan added, they are planning a forum for labor activists to discuss police unions, and whether they can or should be reformed or included. Representatives of the Black Interests Coordinating Committee have been in contact with other graduate student workers and other union members who are interested in putting forth their own resolutions, and they’re working with other members of the Movement for Black Lives on future actions. And, of course, they await a response from the AFL-CIO leadership.

At the end of the day, Buchanan said, “If police were to excise police brutality and anti-Blackness from their institution, I think we’d be having a very different conversation. And that’s also a conversation that I would be happy to have.”

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