By MARC ROME
The unprecedented Black-led, multiracial uprising in defense of Black lives against police murder has elevated and amplified the critique of the police’s role in society that only weeks before, few could have imagined becoming part of a broadening mass opposition to police as a repressive societal force.
Seemingly overnight, every institution of social and political consequence has become the subject of growing collective scrutiny by this massive anti-racist movement, with a new layer of mostly youthful BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) workers stepping up as the standard bearers and leaders of this new radicalization. They are questioning the very foundations of the US police system, including its role in perpetuating the inequality and divisions among workers based on race.
The ferment from the still smoking streets has bubbled over into Big Labor, as calls to disaffiliate from police unions are beginning to pop up. On June 8, Writers Guild of America, East, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, unanimously passed a resolution citing “irreconcilable differences” between cops and workers and called on the AFL-CIO to “disaffiliate with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA).” A portion of the resolution states, “We believe that police unions are incompatible with the AFL-CIO’s stated goals: ‘to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms,’ and to improve the lives of working families and pursue social equity. As long as police unions continue to wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability, no one is safe. Therefore, we believe that police unions do not belong in our labor coalition.”
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka not only denied that opposed interests existed between police and workers but called police “community friendly.” The truth is that they are anything but that, as witnessed by the world when a massive militarized police force in all 50 states and 99 cities – in which 62% of the mayors are Democrats – brutally suppressed peaceful protests. Along with their Republican counterparts, these elected leaders, many having received political and financial support from both labor unions and police unions, presided over police forces that tear gassed and brutalized peaceful protestors.
By contrast, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry acknowledged that, “Disaffiliation [from police unions] must be part of the conversation.” Jane Hopkins, RN and SEIU 1199 Healthcare NW executive vice president, made a major contribution to the discussion when she joined the King County Labor Council to successfully expel 1,300 Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) by a vote of 55% to 45%. Hopkins, speaking in favor of the motion said, “We can’t both stand with a police system that’s set up to hurt our Black community and stand up for our people of color who are oppressed by police.”
Fueled by the ongoing protests against police both inside and outside of organized labor, not to mention sensing the looming shadow of the police forces that suppressed them only weeks ago and even to this day, a growing group of rank and file members are leading a campaign to demand that SEIU disaffiliate from police unions, organized by their affiliate, SEIU/NAGE (National Association of Government Employees).
This historic moment of mass unemployment and never-ending police killings of BIPOC, has some among the ranks of organized labor going deeper to examine the historic roots of police – part 18th-century slave patrols, part 19th and 20th-century Pinkerton strike breakers. From Bloody Thursday in the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, when police shot and killed pickets, or the police killings of workers in the Minneapolis General Strike of that same year, to the attacks by police in 1988 of the Justice for Janitors (SEIU) strike in Los Angeles, and now, tragically, to the trigger finger of an Atlanta SEIU/NAGE “brother” who recently executed Rayshard Brooks, police uphold the rule of the inherently racist bosses with violence.
Somewhere along the way, and largely unbeknownst to them, members’ dues went toward supporting this modern-day lynching of Brooks, not to mention a political system backed by police who deployed chemical agents banned by the Geneva Convention against young multiracial workers. It suggests that the movement to defund the police can have a component in organized labor that seeks these ends, in part, through disaffiliation from police unions and also through a deeper political debate regarding the paradox of unionists’ dues going to support their and their allied community’s historic oppressors.
More abolition-minded sections of the movement advocate varying degrees of defunding and dismantling the police, most far-reaching in Minneapolis, which now faces a possible yearlong bureaucratic process certain to water down the effort. Others advocate keeping the institution intact. The leadership of the Democratic Party heads the chorus of the reform-minded, with Joe Biden proposing $300 million dollars more for police. Bernie Sanders himself also advocated more funding for police, according to his website, “to enhance the recruitment pool by ensuring that the resources are available to pay wages that will attract the top-tier officers we need to do the difficult work of policing.”
CNN pundit Van Jones, formerly in the Obama administration, has even worked directly with the Trump administration to craft his toothless pro-cop executive order on policing. According to the NY Post, “He lauded the president even as the executive order was slammed as cynical and unproductive by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and described as ‘delusional’ by the Color of Change, a racial justice group that Jones himself co-founded 15 years ago.”
Offered as solutions are many things already tried and failed: improved or more ubiquitous use of police body cameras, a database compiling the names of “bad cops”, or even creating civilian review boards, like the one in Minneapolis, which was once heralded as one the most far-reaching police reforms in the nation.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wrote a piece in The Atlantic describing the outcome of these reforms. In short, it was the murder of George Floyd.
“When duly elected officials propose reforms, police unions do not merely oppose them; they actively work to thwart them. Last year, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey banned so-called warrior-style training, which emphasizes physical threats to police officers rather than the benefits of de-escalating confrontations. Critics have implicated a variant of this training—a course titled ‘The Bulletproof Warrior’—in the shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis–St. Paul suburb in 2016. Kroll and the police federation defied Frey’s move by offering warrior-style training of their own.”
Kroll worked closely with Tulsa police Major Travis Yates who was the training director for the Minneapolis Police Department’s “warrior-style training.” Yates not only notoriously denied that racism exists in policing but added that “research says [police] are shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be based on the crimes being committed.”
Tulsa police officer and police union leader, Jerad Lindsey, mocked the civilian review board. Kroll followed up to say: “I’ve had 54 complaints filed against me over my 31 years, and I’m still here. I’m still Lieutenant. I’ve been disciplined, but none of it has ever been upheld. I’ve been sued 11 times.”
Kroll recalled that when a Civilian Review Board was created in Minneapolis in the 1990s, many officers thought it was the death of policing. “Civilian oversight tends to “come and go.” They “burn out and wear out when they don’t get the result that they want, and that is bring the next guilty cop in here no matter what the circumstances are.”
Citing police control in such proceedings, Kroll said, “We can still kind of guide a fair investigation, and at the end of the day, it’s binding arbitration — if we need to bring our case before an arbitrator, we’re well-versed in doing that and overturning discipline in a lot of cases.”
Kroll himself recently explained in the podcast “The Skirmish Line” that body cameras are a “godsend” since they “clear [officers] 95-plus percent of the time.”
Indeed, this is the power of police unions in the face of Civilian Review Boards. Only 3% of the over 1600 complaints against police between 2013 and 2018 have resulted in discipline, according to the Office of Police Conduct Review. In other words, the police unions ensure through arbitration that their misdeeds, brutality and murder are rarely punished. They’ve gamed and institutionalized the very system touted to reign them in.
Meanwhile, with labor union membership at an all-time low of 6% of the workforce, police unions have seen growth in their ranks, and with that comes with an outsized political influence at the highest levels of political power, crushing attempts at police reform. According to Minneapolis councilmember Steve Fletcher, “It operates a little bit like a protection racket,” he said referring to the union.
According to the New York Times, “Six of the larger police organizations have spent a combined $2.9 million since 2017 lobbying the federal government. And various law enforcement entities have contributed more than $100,000 to members of Congress this election cycle, roughly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.”
Even as Congressional Democrats propose ending the notorious “qualified immunity,” which shields cops from punishment for misconduct, the effort arrives as a dead letter with Senate Republicans pledging to quash it. In essence, the Democratic Party’s efforts amount to little more than showing a left face toward a mass movement who momentarily spun out of their orbit of control.
It would seem the entire system of policing is being upheld, with minor tweaks offered here and there, by the most powerful in capitalist society, the very powers who maintain a system that inherently creates inequality and results in the wholly undemocratic control of property, resources, and political power into the hands of 2,200 billionaires worldwide.
When workers, unionized or otherwise, demand even a tiny bit more of the wealth that their labor created, their actions are often deemed illegal by the political powers at the behest of their billionaire economic masters. In a time of over 40 million unemployed, looming mass evictions, and generalized austerity, workers have their backs against the wall, but history has shown that they will defend their interests.
Should organized labor mobilize in the streets to their fullest potential and ally with the masses who faced police terror in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, those same police will be there to attack their just political actions. The coming fightback demands that organized labor take a stand against the forces who are brutally and violently opposed to them.
No Cops In Our Unions!
Defund, Disarm, and Disband the police!
Black control of the Black community!