Art for Rank-and-File Revolt.
Police attack striking steelworkers in 1937. | Richmond Free Library

Rank-and-File Revolt

While labor leaders drag their feet about police unions, members demand radical change

Police attack striking steelworkers in 1937. | Richmond Free Library
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The U.S. labor movement, in all its complicated glory, often finds itself at loggerheads over some issue or another—and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents fifty-five member unions, just as often lies at the heart of the disagreement. Ever since the AFL merged with the more radical CIO in 1955, the house of labor has tended to err on the side of moderation, compromise, and reform, with varying degrees of success. Right now, though, the issue at hand is one of life or death. As part of the nationwide reckoning ignited by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, police unions have come under greater scrutiny for their role in upholding white supremacy and fostering conditions under which killer cops are shielded from consequence. Labor leadership is feeling the pressure to respond, and many rank-and-file union members are calling for radical change.

Much has been written in recent weeks analyzing the role that police unions play in perpetuating violent racism, abuse, and murder against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color in this country, and of the great political and institutional power police wield even within the most progressive unions. Many have argued that the inclusion of police unions in the labor movement does not do anyone any good; on the contrary, it actually places other union members and the rest of the public in greater danger by enabling killer cops to return to the streets. For many working class members, particularly those who are of color, that danger can be devastatingly personal. Two weeks ago, eighteen-year-old Andres Guardado, son of UNITE HERE Local 11 member Cristóbal Guardado, was killed by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy. Now, the union is calling on the city to defund the Sheriff’s Department.

Ever since the AFL merged with the more radical CIO in 1955, the house of labor has tended to err on the side of moderation, compromise, and reform.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Steven Greenhouse dug into police unions’ history, unearthing a particularly salient tidbit from 1897, in which a group of Cleveland policemen petitioned the AFL for a union charter. A decade previously and two states away, Chicago labor organizers and anarchists had held a rally in support of a strike at McCormick Reaper Works. Police killed at least four strikes and injured many more after a bomb was thrown. The cops broke up the rally, too, and eight organizers—known as the Haymarket Martyrs—were convicted of conspiracy. Ultimately, four of them were hanged, including Albert Parsons, the husband of Lucy Parsons, the founding Industrial Workers of the World member and anarchist orator. (The IWW, for its part, wisely refuses to allow cops and prison guards to join in its Constitution.)

It was in this historical context that the federation shot down the policemen’s request, stating, “It is not within the province of the trade union movement to especially organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both policemen and militiamen are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.”

A little over a hundred years later, the AFL-CIO has changed its tune so much that it’s hard to believe they’re the same entity that sent those turn-of-the-century coppers packing, or even that they once worked arm-in-arm with the anarchists, communists, and socialists of the Second International to champion the then-radical notion of an eight-hour workday. The federation’s current president, Richard Trumka, has responded to demands to disaffiliate from International Union of Police Associations with a conspicuous lack of gusto. He and many other entrenched movement leaders have defaulted to the line that all workers deserve a union, ignoring the simple albeit inconvenient truth that cops, as avatars of state violence and defenders of private property, are not workers in any meaningful sense. There has also been the more understandable concern that attacks on cop unions may backfire and weaken public sector unions as a whole.

The latter calls for more discussion, but the former is a dead end. When Mark Dimondstein, the head of the American Postal Workers Union, voiced his opinion in a recent Executive Council meeting that there are “irreconcilable differences” between police unions and other labor unions, Trumka pushed back with spurious leaps of logic and an insistence that police are actually “community friendly.” His theory that unions should be able to work with police because they work with employers is almost too absurd to merit a response—like calling for a bosses’ union, or trying to organize the Pinkertons. This rhetoric falls as flat as the federation’s self-conscious embrace of Black Lives Matter branding after its headquarters were torched during a protest in Washington, D.C. Previously, Trumka had insisted that the way forward was to “engage [police unions] rather than isolate them,” a premise that sounds fine in theory but becomes a bit harder to justify when police union members are actually cracking other union members’ skulls at protests, or murdering their children at work.

Not all labor leaders have been so intransigent; when questioned on her view of cop unions, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said that “expulsion is an option that has to be considered.” Still, the lack of action at the topmost levels has caused frustration and anger among rank-and-file union members and labor activists. A number of unions have spoken out about the necessity of defunding and demilitarizing the police, a development that is throwing police unions themselves into a state of agitation. See, for example, the movement to get cops out of schools; raised by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, along with local activists, in light of George Floyd’s murder, this message is now being carried by teachers’ unions across the country, from Chicago and Madison, WI, to Seattle, and L.A. (though the American Federation of Teachers’ leadership remains lukewarm on the idea of cop-free schools).

Among the unions calling specifically for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) is The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), which passed a unanimous resolution to this effect on June 8 (full disclosure: I am a councilperson for the WGAE and worked on said resolution). SAG-AFTRA members, composed of screen actors and television and radio artists, created a petition calling on their leaders to follow the WGAE’s lead and pass a resolution on disaffiliation after the union’s President and National Executive Director released a statement on June 11 that they felt did not go far enough, as have members of IATSE (theatrical and stage employees). This shot across the bow was echoed by a number of publications’ staff unions, graduate students’ unions, and locals of the NewsGuild and Communications Workers of America, as well as Workers United’s 9,500-strong Upstate New York local.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA released a strong statement warning law enforcement unions that they must “hold officers accountable for violence against citizens, or be removed from the Labor movement,” while United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America wrote that “as long as the organizations formed by police use their power to defend violent and racist practices—and as long as police are used to further the interests of the employers instead of those of working-class communities—we cannot consider their orders, associations or ‘unions’ to be part of the labor movement.” Seattle’s Martin Luther King Labor Council set a new precedent by voting to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild for its failure to adequately address racism. The same day, the Troy Area Labor Council called for IUPA’s suspension pending an investigation. As Seattle City Councilmember and AFT 1789 member Kshama Sawant tweeted that night, “Unions were built on the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all. All working class united against racism [and] police violence.”

The No Cop Unions campaign has been an especially visible effort by a loose collective of over fifty members from a number of labor organizations, a majority of whom are affiliated with the AFL-CIO. They launched a “drop the cops” petition that not only calls on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from IUPA, but demands that any AFL-CIO affiliates with partial law enforcement membership terminate their relationship with unionized police and correctional officers. It’s already at well over 6,000 signatures. “Expelling IUPA would send the message that police unions do not belong in our movement and should not have the stamp of legitimacy that comes from being part of the AFL-CIO,” a No Cop Unions spokesperson told me over email. “Police were the original strike breakers, and they remain antagonistic to the interests of American workers. Labor has a history of anti-Black racism and other forms of discrimination, and expelling the IUPA would show that we are serious about reckoning with that reality.”

Union members from New York to Alaska have been watching the AFL-CIO’s refusal to pick a side and dealing with their own leadership’s lolly-gagging—and they’re pissed.

For its part, IUPA addressed the calls to give them the boot in an extraordinarily hostile letter that President Sam A. Cabral sent to Trumka and the presidents of all the AFL-CIO-affiliated unions on June 12. In it, Cabral castigated Trumka for the AFL-CIO’s acknowledgement of racist police violence, denied any history of racism within the profession, and fumed that Trumka himself should be “ashamed” for “profiling” the police. At one point Cabral wrote, “The American police officer is the sixth most trusted occupation in America. Labor Leaders fall well below that mark, just above lawyers.” Cabral’s own logic begs the question: Why exactly should we trust him?

With all that in mind, I recently put out a call for rank-and-file union members frustrated with labor movement leadership’s responses to this crisis to drop me a line about how they’re feeling. My inbox promptly filled up with emails from all over the country: union members from New York to Alaska have been watching the AFL-CIO’s refusal to pick a side and dealing with their own leadership’s lolly-gagging—and they’re pissed.

“I want to say that I’m really disappointed that the AFL-CIO and local union leaders aren’t taking the calls to at least consider removing cop unions seriously” one AFSCME member who asked to remain anonymous wrote. “It’s an insult to Black union siblings and the labor movement as a whole.”

“Our membership understandably skews progressive, but there is not necessarily a lot of strong pro-labor sentiment,” a SAG-AFTRA member wrote. “It seems like any push for greater police union accountability—or, ideally, full disaffiliation—has support, but is coming up against the dual threats of inertia and institutional whiteness.”

“I believe to my core that expelling cops from the labor movement will be an investment in our future,” Kenzo Shibata, a high school teacher and Chicago Teachers Union Executive Board member, told me when I reached out for his thoughts. “It would be an assurance to union members who have never been activated to see the labor movement as one that cares about the lives of Black and Brown members and their communities. This will increase the size of active union members. We can then work in coalition towards police abolition. We can’t exactly do that with pigs in the henhouse, so to speak.”

Out of all the emails I got, the one that stuck with me the most  pulled the fewest punches. Its subject line was simply, “I’m a regular union guy and I hate cops.”

The email from a worker named Ben was clarifying in its simplicity and blunt honesty, and in the fact that it came from a letter carrier (as opposed to one of the predominantly white-collar workers who have so far dominated the calls for disaffiliation), someone who has undoubtedly encountered more than a few law enforcement officers on his daily rounds. As a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), he’s also part of a community of public sector workers whose livelihoods are under threat while the Trump regime continues to make menacing noises about muscling the beleaguered postal service out of federal aid. One might charitably imagine that “regular union guys” are who Trumka has in mind when he’s delivering his wishy-washy, reform-minded broadsides and doing his best to avoid offending labor’s more conservative outliers. But in 2020, all bets are off; even those stereotypical white working-class blue-collar types he may remember from his United Mineworkers days are not a monolith—and now, some of them really want to drop the cops.

“I’m often disappointed at how being a union laborer doesn’t seem to radicalize my coworkers and they go through life thinking they are better than the impoverished people we serve,” Ben added. “Being in the same umbrella [organization] as cops certainly doesn’t help.”

Kim Kelly is a freelance writer and labor organizer whose writing on labor, radical politics, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, The New Republic, Teen Vogue, Pacific Standard, and many others. She is a proud member of and councilperson for the Writers Guild of America, East. 

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