Why The Left Opposes Police Unions

I.

On June 10, 2016, in a small town just north of Savannah, Georgia, three Teamsters stood on the side of the road outside of a company called XPO Logistics, leafleting truck drivers about their rights as workers. As the truckers left the facility, the Teamsters offered them a flyer, chatting briefly and answering any questions the drivers had. While it’s illegal to leaflet on company property, the Teamsters were stationed on the roadside beyond the facility’s gates.

It was an unremarkable afternoon of outreach, until the local police arrived. Someone from XPO had called them. The officers claimed the trio was blocking the flow of traffic, even though the only drivers on the dead-end road were trucks driving in and out of the facility, and the Teamsters had made a point of standing on the side of the road, flagging drivers down and only approaching once they had stopped driving.

In a state as unfriendly to labor as Georgia, which has the fourth-lowest rate of union membership in the country, the encounter between these Teamsters and the local police was about more than just the actions of these three organizers. No need to believe me; here’s a transcript of the conversation captured by the officers’ body cameras:

“It ain’t like it was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with all those wildcat strikes and those riots and everything,” says one of the officers in the video.

“You smell that?” he continues. “You smell that?”

“The paper mill?” responds one of the organizers quizzically.

“No. Fresh air,” the officer caustically remarks. “We want to make sure everybody can continue to breathe the fresh air.”

A letter later sent to the town by a Teamsters lawyer, who is threatening a lawsuit over the incident if the city doesn’t drop the charges against the organizers, asserts that “there was no other reasonable interpretation” of the “fresh air” remark except that “the police department considers union activity pollution.”

“They wanted to make it seem like us dispersing content is illicit,” said Ben Speight, one of the Teamsters organizers. “The content, the union aspect, is what they were trying to stop.”

Speight speculated that the police citations would make some of the drivers feel uncomfortable talking to the Teamsters in the future for fear of drawing attention to themselves by association.

II.

The encounter between Teamsters and cops is a snapshot of the agonizing difficulty of organizing unions in the South, a place of hostile and organized anti-union machinations. The face of that hostility? The police officers who show up and antagonize union representatives, who ultimately brought charges against the three Teamsters when Speight asked for one of the officers’ badge number.

For the Left, supporting unions is a given. Whatever differences we may have — many, to be sure —we all agree that rebuilding the labor movement is central to achieving a more just society. While the labor movement is not limited to unions, these organizations, the primary place where working-class people are already organized, are a major locus of our attention.

At their best, unions are schools for workers’ democracy, vehicles through which the working class experiences the power of collective action and learns how to demand ownership over the value they produce. In the face of a decades-long organized backlash against unions and declining union membership — which, as a recent Economic Policy Institute study noted, hurts all workers, reducing weekly wages for non-union workers by $14 to $52 — supporting unions is more important than ever.

In the case of those Teamsters leafletting in Georgia, what that support looks like is clear: we’re on their side, against the cops. Sure, these officers were just doing their duty, responding to a call from XPO. But their visceral opposition to unions, analogizing union organizing to pollution and favorably contrasting the anti-union present to the “strikes and riots” of earlier decades, shows a propensity to go far beyond the call of duty.

It’s an easy case, save one complication: cops have unions too, or at least, cops have “unions,” union-like organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), and the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), with the latter housed within the AFL-CIO.

For many progressives and some on the Left, these organizations throw a wrench into an otherwise coherent picture, leading some to engage in intellectual gymnastics to explain away the anti-union sentiment on display in the encounter between the cops and Teamsters in Georgia. But it shouldn’t.

Instead of forcing us into a corner, leaving us muttering that “cops are the 99% too” — a statement heard so often during the Occupy movement — the contradiction revealed by police unions should throw into relief an important distinction between liberals and the Left, namely, the reasons each of these groups support unions. This difference too often goes unacknowledged and in light of the anti-police-brutality movement and the recent uproar over the election of a police-union organizer to the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), it’s worth clarifying the distinction.

III.

The Left supports unions not because they’re an inherent good, but because they’re vehicles for building working-class power. If and when unions do not build that power, we should challenge and criticize them, pushing them to reform. And in the case of police unions, we stand against them as such, because no efforts for reform can change their very reason for existence, which is to undermine working-class interests in general, even as they increase the power of their limited membership.

A huge number of young people are entering left politics today, drawn in by the Sanders campaign, the anti-police-brutality movement, and their own experiences of growing up in an outrageously unequal country. Making explicit the Left’s reasons for supporting unions is critical to advancing the higher level of politics needed in these urgent times. An exploration of police unions provides a means to consider this matter concretely.

As Bill Fletcher Jr and Fernando Gapasin argue in Solidarity Divided, a key difference between liberal and left unionism — what they term “pragmatism” or “traditionalism,” and “leftism,” respectively — is who we consider the proper constituency of the union movement, and toward what end we’re struggling. While the traditionalist/pragmatist views union members as the movement’s constituency, with winning gains for the members (fighting for “bread and butter” as it’s often put) as the goal, the leftist takes all members of the working class to be the proper constituency of the union movement, with strengthening this class’s power our goal.

While these perspectives often align, allowing proponents of both views to work together, police unions drive a wedge between liberals and the Left. If police unions undermine working-class power, even as they achieve gains for their limited membership, the Left should call for their delegitimization wherever they operate, whether within the AFL-CIO or outside of it. But we in doing so, we should be prepared to debate otherwise allied forces — the traditionalists and pragmatists.

IV.

Before moving to the reasons for rejecting police unions, it’s important to consider the argument for them. Despite widespread (and justified) outrage this past weekend over a police union organizer gaining a position on the DSA’s National Political Committee, much of the labor movement includes police unions within its ranks. If we want to win the argument against this view, we must understand it.

At its left-most, this is an argument for the strategic value of engaging progressive dissenters within police departments as a means to splitting their constituents and building power. Those who advance this argument recognize the impossibility of unifying with the bigots who rise to the top of these unions — people like Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City’s largest police union, who blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for the death of two NYPD officers in December 2014. Rather, left-wingers who hold to this view advocate critical support for those seeking to achieve progressive changes from within the police force.

For example, Cedric Johnson argues that the Left should engage “reformist elements within police unions and departments,” people such as “minority law enforcement professional organizations, whistleblowers and dissident officers, and other progressive elements,” all of whom we can unite with on a desire to build a more meaningful and less unpopular model of policing. While Johnson takes care to distinguish what he’s advocating from support for police unions as such, his argument rests on a flawed understanding of the dynamics at play within police unions.

In a rebuttal to Johnson, Shawn Gude argues that “Hoping for reform-minded police unions is delusional.” “If anything,” he adds, “reform groups would benefit from being able to organize without the influence of an overarching union. The same goes for individual officers.” Free of the stifling force of the union, “those of good conscience” — the elements with whom Johnson is concerned — could fight for a broader vision of social justice and radical changes in policing. By dismissing the possibility that police unions work against any reformist interests, Johnson advances a strategy of engagement that doesn’t match the landscape of contemporary US policing.

It’s from a consideration of the purpose of the police and the conditions on which their jobs rely that Gude arrives at his position. The livelihood of the police relies on perpetuating the most repressive aspects of the status quo — de facto race and class segregation in our cities, rising inequality, and what sociologist Loïc Wacquant terms the “carceral continuum,” a state in which the inner-city merges with the prison, with both coming to resemble each other in form and function. Under such conditions, empowered police organizations can only advocate for new weapons, less transparency, and murkier repercussions in the case of police wrongdoing, as these are the “reforms” that benefit their membership, the constituency of interest to their leadership, traditionalists in Fletcher and Gapasin’s schema.

This is not a moral argument about the goodness or badness of police. Rather, it’s a response to the propensity of the police, as Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue argues, to “organize as police, not workers.” This perspective, rooted in a left unionism interested in strengthening the working class as a whole, cannot align with organizations pursuing policies that improve the conditions of their membership at the expense of the broader working class.

When we look at what police organizations have accomplished, the argument that they’re incompatible with a progressive labor movement looks like common sense. As detailed in an interview with the New Republic, University of Nebraska professor and criminal justice reform expert Samuel Walker explains one project these associations have successfully implemented: Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights. These are contract prescriptions “negotiated in the shadows” and codified into state law, and include investigative waiting periods, a stipulation that lacks “any evidentiary justification or legitimate labor interest.” With related aims of blocking efforts to install body cameras, as was recently attempted in Boston before a judge struck down the patrolman union’s request for an injunction against the cameras, police associations are incompatible with even the most broadly defined social-justice unionism.

V.

No union is perfect. To varying degrees, all our unions are run by bureaucrats with split interests. While these officials are concerned with furthering the power of their membership, they also maneuver to hold onto their positions within the union, which can lead them to weaken members’ power. When this happens — like when SEIU fires their staff organizers for daring to demand a union of their own, or when the Teamsters undercut the UFW’s organizing, or when the UAW yet again files for an election prematurely — we shouldn’t shy away from criticizing them.

But police unions will never rise to the level required for even this critical support from the Left. They cannot, for they function to repress working-class power.

The biggest objection to this argument is that criticism of police unions can be applied to other public-sector workers, such as teachers. Where this response fails is in grappling with the fact that teachers are already under attack, and that any and every argument against their unions is already in play right now.

We can return to Cedric Johnson’s article on police unions for an example of this objection. He writes, “like other public workers, [police] are increasingly expendable, and subject to the same pressures of fiscal austerity, expected to ‘do more with less’ especially in large urban jurisdictions.” However, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. The police aren’t suffering from austerity measures; rather, they’re more empowered than ever, particularly when it comes to their budgets for equipment, with many departments enjoying unprecedented military hand-me-downs.

What goes unconsidered by those who share Johnson’s concerns is the possibility that police occupy a structurally distinct role from their brothers and sisters in public-sector unions. But if we look at the ongoing backlash against public-sector workers, police aren’t subject to the same pressure as their peers.

Take Scott Walker’s historic attack on unions in 2011. His anti-union bill — which struck down collective-bargaining rights for public employees — included an exception for the police.

This did not go unnoticed within the house of labor. In 2015, UAW Local 2685, representing 13,000 graduate workers on University of California campuses, unanimously passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the IUPA, the AFL-CIO’s largest police union.

“Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of the police as laborers,” the resolution reads. It continues, “If the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it’s that cops are different than other public-sector employees.”

This complements resolutions from the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions also passed in 2015 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and for the demilitarizing and disarming of campus police. These resolutions commit their supporters to pursuing strategies to strengthen the Black Lives Matter movement and disarm campus police.

Or consider the recent actions of teachers in Minneapolis. Gathered in the city for the AFT convention in 2016, the local teachers unions led a march to protest the police killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul. Castile, who worked at a public school, was a member of Teamsters Local 320, a local that also represents law enforcement officers. Although the Teamsters wrote a letter mourning Castile’s death, the presidents of the St. Paul and Minneapolis police unions were “appalled” by the demonstration, suggesting the extent to which police organizations cannot resolve the contradictions at the heart of their involvement with the labor movement.

Within the anti-police-brutality movement, we see a similar distinction between solidarity with unions and rejection of alliance with police “unions” being made. July 2016 saw a coordinated set of demonstrations and sit-ins at FOP and PBA halls in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. by activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives.

Interviewed about these actions, Clarise McCants, an organizer with the Black Youth Project (BYP100), explained, “We’re definitely pro-labor union,” adding that the coalition’s message is “that the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is not just like any union. They are a fraternity — and they are the most dangerous fraternity in America.” If McCants can distinguish between the function of the FOP and that of unions, rejecting their surface-level similarity, there’s no reason the rest of the Left can’t do the same. Protests like these should be supported by the labor movement, with organizations like BYP100 welcomed into its fold: after all, they’re composed overwhelmingly of workers, and particularly, workers of color.

What organizers like McCants are voicing is not a contradiction — although they recognize that some might see it that way — so much as Fletcher and Gapasin’s definition of a leftist unionism. From a perspective that states that we’re not fighting for unions as such, but for unions in so far as they’re a proxy for greater working-class power, there is no inconsistency in rejecting police unionism.

Police are not like other workers. It wouldn’t be misplaced to claim they are not workers, period, but rather, managers of class struggle. They belong outside the labor movement, which is where we already find them in instances of increased waves of struggle, repressing anti-racist activists, the Occupy-Wall-Street movement, Standing Rock water defenders, and anyone else who dares demand their rights.

VI.

Let’s not condescend to our boys in blue: very few of their organizations call themselves unions, and neither should we. An argument against engaging with police organizations can be incorporated to weaken other public-sector unions only if we don’t insist on the distinction between the two.

No one wants to shrink an already imperiled labor movement. But allowing police to remain present within the AFL-CIO, or to masquerade as if their fraternities or associations are progressive forces, discourages union growth. We shouldn’t hesitate on this point. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in America, and African-Americans are emerging as the new face of organized labor. It would be a dismissal of the seriousness of racist police brutality to ignore the message it sends people of color to treat the police as legitimate partners in working-class struggle.

Racial justice has always been the leading edge of effective unions — whether it was the IWW’s multiracial organizing in the early years of the labor movement or the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which fought both for union gains against the employer and against the racism of their white union brothers and sisters. In the face of a vibrant anti-racist movement today, one that consciously connects itself to the Fight for $15 and defines itself as pro-union, we should draw on and extend this legacy.

An anti-racist labor movement requires an end to collaboration with the police, and the police offer a critical example of what we on the Left mean when we say we’re pro-union. The beginnings of this conversation are visible in the actions of UAW Local 2685 and Minneapolis teachers, and it’s from these progressive elements within the labor movement that we should take our cues. In an age where company unions are taking advantage of the dearth of nuanced conversations about power to repress worker organizing, we must stop automatically defending any organization that presents itself as a union, and instead, begin rebuilding the power of the working class, as a class.