In July, controversy shook the national convention of AFSCME, one of the largest labor unions in the United States. Delegates proposed expelling thousands of the union’s members and were eventually booed off the convention floor. These delegates feared for their safety walking back to their hotel rooms. Withdrawing protection from an entire sector of workers seems like a contradictory proposal for a union to consider, but the defeated resolution follows a long tradition of worker organizing. To understand why, we need to look into the reality of police unions, by far the strongest labor unions in the United States today (The Real News).
The controversial resolution was for AFSCME, a union of government workers, to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations. “I think a lot of the loudness came from the fact that police and prison guards, specifically, were very, very loud,” says one of the delegates from Cop-Free AFSCME, “but it was the vast majority of the room against it” (The Real News).
In a country with weak labor unions, police unions have won a “wide array of protections” and generous compensation for their members. Bans on civilian oversight, prohibitions on anonymous civilian complaints, and shrouding disciplinary records in secrecy: all stem from the contracts negotiated by police unions on behalf of their members (The Nation).
But beyond objecting to specific contract language, Cop-Free AFSCME demands a “cop-free labor movement” (Cop-Free AFSCME). Since rank-and-file cops are not management or business owners, some might object that they need union membership as much as any other worker.
But cops aren’t like any other worker. For one thing, other workers don’t kill people for the government. And since labor organizing was illegal for most of U.S. history and political elites and lawmakers tend to support wealthy business owners far more than their disgruntled employees, those legally murdered by law enforcement have often been other union workers. Police unions historically weren’t part of the U.S. labor movement since cops are more likely to brutalize striking workers than take their side.
Labor unions exist because as long as employees show up and products get sold, it’s in the interest of business owners to extract as much labor as possible from workers while paying them as little as possible. The history of labor organizing has emphasized class consciousness, solidarity, and power for exploited working people. Class consciousness means recognizing that working people have a common interest in improving conditions for workers. Class solidarity is taking action to support other workers to make this happen, like walking a picket line to support a strike or refusing to violate a boycott. And class power is the objective for working people to control more of their workplaces, neighborhoods, and lives and for bosses and corporations to control less. A whole host of laws designed to benefit the well-off and disempower their employees are put into place to prevent that from happening (ABC News, AlterNet, NLG Review). A segment of workers is paid quite well to enforce such laws against other working people: the police.
Unlike other workers, “the police are clearly part of the managerial machinery of capitalism,” writes policing scholar Kristian Williams. “Their status as ‘workers’ is therefore problematic. Second, the agendas of police unions mostly reflect the interests of the institution (the police department) rather than those of the working class” (Teen Vogue).
The people killed by U.S. police aren’t Fortune 500 CEOs or hedge fund managers. They’re people like Teamsters member Philando Castile (Buzzfeed News), former American Postal Workers Union member Javier Ambler (CBS), and SEIU member Rayshard Brooks (Labor Notes). Police contract language derailed the investigation into the murder of Freddie Gray. When NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner, Pantaleo’s union threatened a work slowdown to shield him from accountability (Teen Vogue). The workers who turn on other working people, especially Black, Brown, and gender non-conforming people (Huffington Post), have no place in the labor movement. Neither do union officials who value political connections and membership dues more than the lives of their marginalized members.
• Police officers use violence against marginalized communities and workers fighting for dignity.
• Police unions shield police officers from accountability, harming working people as a whole.
• Police unions have no place in the labor movement.