The police were never supposed to have a union. In 1897 the American Federation of Labor, which would merge with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO, rejected a petition from a group of Cleveland officers on the grounds that “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.”
In the ensuing 123 years, the attitude of police toward the working class has not changed. You’ll never see cops join a picket line; instead, they’re the force that the bosses call to break the strike. Over the years, police have killed countless laborers, from coal miners at Blair Mountain, where police shot dozens of striking West Virginia workers dead in 1921, to Breonna Taylor, an emergency room technician in Louisville, Ky. Report after report reveals the proliferation of white supremacists and far-right rhetoric within the ranks of law enforcement.
On June 8, 2020, the Writers Guild of America, East, passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate with the International Union of Police Associations, citing IUPA’s failure to uphold “the basic principles of free and democratic trade unionism.” WGA East was soon joined by the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union and the Washington-Baltimore News Guild. At its 2020 conference, the California Labor Federation resolved to disassociate from police unions and the National Border Patrol Council. In June the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA called for law enforcement unions that fail to address racism and hold officers accountable to be removed from the labor movement, and MLK Labor in Washington’s King County voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild because of its failure to do just that.
These calls to chuck out the police are not new, but they have grown louder and more insistent. A number of rank-and-file groups have started organizing around the issue, from No Cop Unions, which includes labor activists and members from over a dozen unions, to union-specific groups like Cop-Free AFSCME, SEIU Drop the Cops, and IATSE Members for Racial Justice. But so far, the appeals to drop the cops have been brushed aside by labor leaders, who are reluctant to take political chances in an election year and fear alienating members who disagree.
But there can be no justice without sacrifice, and by taking the overdue step of pushing out law enforcement unions, labor will clear a path to the more fundamental missions of confronting racism within its ranks and rectifying mistakes. It is a daunting task but one that is necessary for the movement to evolve and show that it genuinely believes that Black lives matter. We cannot stand by and watch as our so-called union brothers continue to brutalize and extinguish working-class lives with impunity.
Given the dire peculiarities of our current moment, let us consider the question in medical terms. An infection, left untreated, will soon spread throughout the body. It will rot away the flesh, poison the blood, and when wholly unimpeded, eat its victim alive. Those who are weak and vulnerable will suffer the most. Sepsis will set in, then gangrene. By then, only one option remains: amputation. Excising the limb can prevent the infection from spreading further and allow the body time to heal. In this case, white supremacy is the pathogen, and the police are the diseased limb. In order to prevent even more harm, we must sever law enforcement from the broader labor movement.
Expelling police from our unions is not an immediate cure for racism within the labor movement, but it is a drastic intervention that will set a course for further treatment. It is imperative that labor address and eradicate the poison, from rank-and-file members up to the highest levels of leadership. In 2016 nearly 40 percent of union members voted for Donald Trump, including over 50 percent of white male members, but this problem is not a new one. Organized labor in this country has a long history of exclusion and discrimination against workers on grounds of gender, race, religion, and national origin. But it has also made great strides toward equality and justice, saved millions of lives, and uplifted the working class.
There is power in a union, and that power must be wielded carefully and judiciously. As an AFL-CIO general board statement noted, it would be “quick and easy to cut ties with police unions,” yet the federation has refused to do so. The board’s vision of “building a better labor movement from within” leaves out the Black workers, Indigenous workers, and other workers of color, who are disproportionately targeted, harmed, and killed by police, who are shielded by their unions.
It can be hard to do the right thing, but that is no reason not to do it. Unless we operate now, this deadly infection will only spread further. There is no other option. Which side are you on?
To read the other side of The Debate, read Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “The Labor Movement Isn’t Ready to Expel Police Unions.”