SEIU Drop the Cops Town Hall: For a Union Without Police

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By MARC ROME and ANN MONTAGUE

SEIU Drop the Cops, a rank-and-file-led group of SEIU members and staff demanding that their elected leadership disassociate from police union affiliates, held an online Town Hall on August 30, hosted by Labor Notes. It featured four rank-and-file members who were joined by Hamilton Nolan, a labor journalist for In These Times magazine, among other publications.

Over 100 people attended the event, and the video on Facebook has received more than 2000 views.

Opening remarks by frontline nurse and Local 1021 member Marina Stankov-Hodge, who facilitated the event, set the tone. She envisioned a truly democratically run society and evoked the humanity of this struggle to create a “more just and verdant world” without police. SEIU organizes about 37,000 law enforcement, 15,000 of whom are sworn and civilian staff in police departments, according to a recent response from the union to a Request for Information made by the rank and file.  

Julia Wallace, a member of SEIU 721, began by contextualizing the disaffiliation campaign against the backdrop of a highly polarized society in which white supremacists are mobilized, armed, and have killed peaceful protesters with police supporting their racist terror; meanwhile, “we have one of the largest and most dynamic movements in the history of the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement.” Wallace in 2016 brought a disaffiliation resolution to Local 721’s Black Caucus and Latino Caucus, the former passing it unanimously; in the latter, there was much debate, during which a former organizer in the 1980s Justice for Janitors campaign in L.A. recalled being beat up by the police at a picket. Fast forward 30 years, and Rayshard Brooks is killed by Atlanta police, and, “the police who murdered him are protected by our union, SEIU,” said Wallace. “That’s completely antithetical to the workers movement, and completely antithetical to the union movement and to Black people and the Black community who are continually harassed and assaulted by police.” She characterized a future labor movement that hearkens to a principle seemingly forgotten: an injury to one is an injury to all. So when police, who are not workers, kill a Black person, all organized labor stops working. 

Wallace elaborated on the group’s five guiding demands, which were voted on after nearly a month of internal discussion and debate. The group’s primary and central demand is to expel police, “including law enforcement officers, jail and prison guards, probation officers, and armed security officers from the union.” The demand also ties into the group’s vision, she explained, to orient to the tens of millions of unorganized workers who mobilized during the May/June George Floyd protests. A goal is to not just drop the cops, but to reinvigorate unions by organizing this movement led by Black people and Black women, in particular, and composed of multiracial, multi-gendered, and immigrant workers. The timing for such an ambitious union drive is more propitious than in recent memory: a recent Gallup poll showed that 65% of respondents approved of unions, a high point of a steady increase in support since the Great Recession ten years ago.

Disarm PSU

Ann Montague, from Local 503 in Oregon and one of the authors of this article, spoke about the Disarm PSU campaign at Portland State University, where armed campus police were represented by SEIU. The union protected their being armed through collective bargaining, an issue that divided the local. Campus police, already notorious for racial profiling, were given arms by a decision of the board of trustees in 2014. This decision was opposed, according to a campus poll, by a majority of PSU students, faculty, and staff.

Continued organizing led to a student protest at a freshman convocation, convened by the campus president, where activists chanted “somebody is going to get killed!” Tragically, this was a foreboding cry: in 2018 Jason Washington, a Black man, was killed by two campus police, who shot him 17 times without warning. Their racist execution was deemed justified by a grand jury. 

In the years before this too familiar story of cops getting away with murder, students and faculty organized a walkout in 2016, numbering 400 students, escalating the Disarm PSU demand. Later that year, the coalition grew to include PSU Ethnic Studies and community activists, including Portland BLM and Jobs with Justice. 

In June, on the second anniversary of Jason’s murder, a large rally led by his widow and daughters called for a new petition to Disarm PSU police and to fire his killers. 

By July, around the time of the SEIU J20 Strike for Black Lives, a rank-and-file member asked the president of Local 503 if “we’re finally going to see the PSU police leave our union,” according to Montague. The president replied, “The question has been asked, and they are leaving.” By August, PSU announced that they were disarming their police and creating a “Reimagine Campus Safety Committee,” which Disarm PSU demanded be created by the very coalition that they led. 

Resolution by CIR to Drop the Cops

Keriann Shalvoy, a member of SEIU Committee of Interns and Residents, the largest housestaff (physicians and surgeons in specialty training at a hospital who care for patients under the direction and responsibility of attending staff) union in the United States, discussed her how her 13,000 member local passed a resolution in August to disaffiliate from police unions. 

Shalvoy, having served for 2 years in the CIR House of Delegates and also running for national president of her local on the progressive/reform slate Housestaff for a Democratic Union, highlighted some main points of the resolution: 1) “SEIU disassociate from police and other unions representing repressive workforces like ICE, border patrol, and corrections officers.” 2) “Our Local Union’s COPE (Committee on Political Education) must not endorse any candidate for public office who accepts donations from police unions, or, for public office with budgetary powers over police or criminal justice system budgets who fails to pledge cuts to police budgets and support instead housing, healthcare, and non-police responses to psychosocial issues.” (This is not an exhaustive summary. To read the entire resolution go to www.cirseiu.org)

The latter demand excludes endorsement of a number of Senate and Congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as both presidential candidates, who have pledged millions more for the police and received money from police unions. This demand alone disavows SIEU International Union’s use of $150 million in union dues that they plan to spend on electing Biden/Harris, who are pledging $300 million more for the police. 

While “The Squad” – Democratic congressmembers Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley – and a host of other Democratic Party politicians have signed the No Cash From Cops pledge “to reject political donations from the Fraternal Order of Police,” they’ve left open, it seems, the possibility of receiving money from other police unions. There’s no mention of the International Union of Police Associations (AFL-CIO) nor the National Association of Government Employees (an SEIU-affiliated union that organizes police).

Only two members of “The Squad,” Tlaib and Pressley, support a proposal by the Movement for Black Lives to introduce a dead letter bill, the BREATHE Act, to defund the police. It has yet to be officially introduced into Congress, and has virtually no additional support. If these and other so-called “progressive” Democrats never receive a dime from cops, would it matter? Every single Democratic Party politician has effectively endorsed a system of more policing with their unified support for the pro-cop Biden/Harris campaign. This points up an important contradiction and limitation in at least the way CIR’s second demand is worded, which is similar to the fourth demand that SEIU Drop the Cops also adopted (go to seiudtc.org for a full list of demands). 

How, in the months and years ahead, this rank and file movement will orient to the Democratic Party’s pretended responsiveness to the anti-racist, anti-police movement is part of an ongoing discussion. As a dynamic formation, SEIU Drop the Cops will likely grapple with the evolving socio-political landscape opened up by the mass movement that put police abolition, an arguably revolutionary demand, on the agenda.

Labor Journalist Leads Disaffiliation Campaign in Union

Hamilton Nolan, a leader in the Writers’ Guild of American East, rounded out the discussion. His articles in various press were among the first to publicize his 7000 members’ disaffiliation resolution, which passed unanimously! WGAE is the historic first AFL-CIO union to take this position, aimed at the affiliated International Union of Police Associations.

He encouraged other unions to try passing similar resolutions, even if they don’t pass at first attempt. There’s value in union leaders being on record taking a position, and continuing to escalate and pushing the issue relentlessly, he said. If left up to union leadership, they would “sweep it under the rug, and not be forced to take a position, and if they don’t take a position,” urged Nolan, “run for leadership positions in your union.” 

He also recalled his June interview with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, in which she said, “We have to consider expulsion of police from the labor movement as a possibility. She said this was a ‘which side are you on’ moment,” alluding to a class principle which, for the most conscious workers, means one must choose a side: you’re either with workers or you’re with the police. 

Reflecting on SEIU Drop the Cops’ demands around the necessity to organize the unorganized, Nolan pointed to a union movement in steady decline. In terms of percentage of workers unionized, it has gone from 35% in 1955 to 6% today. According to Nolan, if unions keep going at this rate they are “just going to die. This issue [of police union disaffiliation] is so important for that because the exact people we’re trying to bring into the labor movement are the same people who have that immediate reaction of ‘aren’t you all the ones that represent the cops?’” He gave the example of the AFL-CIO Twitter in which many responses to their Tweets are, “aren’t you all the ones who have the cop unions?” Clearly, “this is a stumbling block,” he continued, “when you talk about ‘we want to grow the labor movement, we want to bring in all the people that are in the streets these new people,’ that’s not going to happen as long as we have to answer for what police unions are doing.” 

Nolan also raised an important issue about how public sector unions will likely be affected should limits be imposed on police unions, who are part of the public sector. This raises a serious political question, the answer to which can be clarified by viewing the class nature of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting decree in 2011. While crippling public sector unions, it left police unions untouched. If a poisonous anti-union, pro-cop political system can simultaneously decimate workers’ unions and strengthen police unions, a militant mass union movement combined with a party based on that movement is the antidote. Extracting police unions from the House of Labor would be the logical outcome of this class struggle potentiality and a necessary step toward building working class union power unlike anything seen in this country’s history.

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