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Breaking With AFL-CIO, Affiliated Labor Council May Vote to Expel Police Union

Activists say that by continuing to affiliate with police unions, some labor leaders are betraying protesters’ demands.

Seattle police stand guard outside a precinct as people protest the death of George Floyd in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, on June 1, 2020.

The executive board of MLK Labor, the central body of labor groups which represents more than 150 unions and 100,000 workers in the Seattle, Washington, area approved a resolution Thursday giving an ultimatum to the Seattle Police Officers Guild: Address Seattle Police Department’s systemic racism or face potential expulsion.

The Police Officers Guild represents and negotiates labor contracts for Seattle police officers, and has been part of the labor council for the last six years. “In contrast to [the Guild’s] statement, recent events are not the result of a few ‘bad actors,’” the resolution states. “Our police are over armed with weapons but provided no real tools to dismantle the racism in their own department or provide the services our community needs.”

The resolution demands members of the Guild and the labor council’s executive boards meet within the next two weeks and participate in a working space to address the Guild’s institutional racism and ensure its “contracts do not evade legitimate accountability.” The council’s board gives the Guild until June 17 to take these actions. If it fails to do so, the council will vote over whether to disaffiliate from the Guild.

The council also outlined a list of demands for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan around addressing violence perpetrated by the Seattle Police Department, including asking City Attorney Pete Holmes to drop charges for individuals arrested while protesting in Seattle and commit to a series of police reforms, including prioritizing “non-law enforcement investments in the city.”

“As a Black woman leader in the labor movement and in the health care field, I have fought to apply a racial justice lens to every aspect of the work I lead,” said Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW local. “I cannot run head-long at fighting this disease without acknowledging the pandemic within the pandemic — systemic racism. We must do the tough but necessary work of calling in our siblings in law enforcement.”

The labor council previously urged Seattle City Council members to ratify a controversial contract with the Guild two years ago that both rolled back but also codified certain police accountability measures, saying the contract would put in place “historic reforms to police oversight” for a department that has been brought “into full and effective compliance with” a federal consent decree.

Movement leaders in the streets, however, challenge the idea that police departments can be effectively reformed or “called in” to do the work of fighting systemic racism themselves.

“Labor is not going to be able to figure out to organize effectively if we cannot figure out how to root out racism within our movement.”

Still, the resolution is one of the most forceful among any affiliated labor council of the AFL-CIO in terms of calling out a police union, and comes as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has refused to expel the International Union of Police Associations and other law enforcement unions from the U.S.’s largest labor federation.

Trumka told Bloomberg Friday that he won’t cut ties with police unions because “police officers and everyone who works for a living has the right to collective bargaining” and that the “best way to use our influence on the issue of police misconduct is to engage with our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” He told labor leaders and reporters Wednesday that “the answer is not to disengage and condemn” police unions, while imploring labor organizers to fight racism.

Trumka has praised the Minnesota Federation of Labor’s ousting of the openly racist Minneapolis Police Officers Federation President Bob Kroll. He also said the labor movement must play a leading role in the racial justice movement “because protesting racial brutality, whether at the hands of a police officer, or a neighbor, or an employer, is not only the right cause. It’s a responsibility.”

Protesters set the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the AFL-CIO, aflame Sunday night, smashing in its windows and graffitiing its gold 16th Street entrance with “Black Lives Matter.” While the motivations for the arson remain unclear, the action has put the federation’s partnership and affiliation with police under further scrutiny.

The MLK Labor resolution represents one of the most significant breaks with the AFL-CIO leadership, asking that a police union affiliated with the council affirm “that racism is a structural problem in our society and in law enforcement” and actively harms Black communities. The Seattle Police Officers Guild did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

“Labor is not going to be able to figure out to organize effectively if we cannot figure out how to root out racism within our movement and move toward an anti-racist stand and be directly linked to the communities in which our workers live,” said Faye Guenther, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, which sponsored the resolution alongside SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and other groups.

Guenther says UFCW 21 has been working through a process of “truth and reconciliation” related to labor’s long history of racism and working to move a number of resolutions within the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington branch of the AFL-CIO, calling for specific actions to become an anti-racist organization.

The local also passed a resolution during the 2018 convention of its international union committing to performing a comprehensive inventory of its own structural inequities with regard to race, building a forum for discussion around racial issues, and providing a series of trainings on racial bias and justice.

“Labor needs to clean up its own house.”

Guenther pointed to bus drivers affiliated with Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union in New York and Minneapolis who refused to shuttle police and arrested protesters as an example of the kind of leadership the labor movement needs right now. “Those are the kinds of acts of solidarity that labor must engage in to regain the faith of our communities,” she said.

U.S. police departments remain one of the heaviest unionized sectors in the country, representing hundreds of thousands of cops at the state, federal and local levels. The national largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has more than 340,000 members. Former Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last month, was a union member.

By continuing to affiliate with police unions, Trumka and other labor leaders are betraying the demands of protesters and some of the federation’s own affiliates, including the United Auto Workers Local 2865, who want the organization to take a stand and let go of hundreds of thousands of unionized officers. Trumka’s reticence comes as the 2018 Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision continues to erode some public-sector union rolls.

Still, racial justice activists say now is exactly the moment to “disengage,” and that the federation has done so before, pointing to the AFL-CIO’s disaffiliation with the Teamsters and other unions.

Guenther says that instead of relying on police officers to pad union rolls, the labor movement must do the work of becoming anti-racist and being involved in communities and social justice movements to ensure its own future and growth.

“Labor needs to clean up its own house,” Guenther said. “We need people of good heart and good will, and people who believe in racial equity, gender equity, LGBT equity and trans equity to join our movement and help us rebuild our power to fight corporate greed, and rebuild our power to have a more anti-racist, pro-democracy and pro-human soul of the labor movement.”

Moreover, she said, “There’s a direct link between right-to-work [laws] and undermining workers of color,” noting that such laws, which undermine unions’ strength, originated with Republican lobbyist Vance Muse, who used segregationist arguments against unionization to advance the first right-to-work law in Texas. “Right-to-work is totally embedded in white supremacy and racism,” Guenther said.

“Right-to-work is totally embedded in white supremacy and racism.”

Further, activists have pointed out that police unions don’t show up regularly in solidarity for the broader labor movement; instead they actively repress working people by routinely beating and murdering them in the streets. Police officers have long been used to break strikes and kill striking workers, as they have done during historic labor uprisings such as the 1897 Lattimer Massacre, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain and the 1937 Little Steel Strike in Chicago.

Police unions largely work to protect their own. The contracts they bargain keep racist officers who have killed and abused immune from accountability. They maintain policing’s structural system of white supremacy while maintaining wages and benefits that often exceed those of public servants like emergency medical technicians and child care workers.

To be sure, Trumka has called out police-perpetrated violence in the past. After the Ferguson uprising of 2014, Trumka noted that Darren Wilson and Michael Brown’s mother were both union members, saying, “Our brother killed our sister’s son,” last September. “We do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.” During his tenure as president of the United Mineworkers of America, he criticized police for brutalizing a striking miner during the 1989 Pittston Coal Strike.

Still, amid the historic uprisings of the past two weeks, simple criticisms and affirmations of anti-racism without bold action sound like mere lip service to many in the streets.

If the MLK Labor council votes to disaffiliate the Seattle Police Officers Guild on June 17, it would be the first significant expulsion of a police union from an organized labor council anywhere in the country.

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