How Did Police Unions Get So Powerful?

How Did Police Unions Get So Powerful?

How Did Police Unions Get So Powerful?

Police unions are on the defensive for perhaps the first time since their formation. It’s been a long time coming.


New York City’s liberal mayor, elected on a platform of overhauling a police department accused of deep-seated racism and corruption, had a seemingly obvious idea for reform: instituting civilian oversight of the police.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, established not long before to investigate instances of police misconduct, didn’t actually have civilian members; deputy police commissioners investigated complaints. So the mayor proposed adding four civilians to the board. The remaining three would be members of the police department. Police officers, led by their brand-new union, went into full revolt.

“I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting,” thundered John Cassese, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which represented rank-and-file cops. “Any review board with civilians is detrimental to the operations of the police department.”

The year was 1966.

That fall, just two years after the formation of the PBA, Cassese would lead a successful referendum to overwhelmingly crush City Hall’s plan to institute civilian oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD). For the rest of his time in office, John Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor, would be perpetually on the defensive, getting booed at police funerals and enduring an unofficial strike in his second term.

It was a warning to mayors across America: If the glamorous Lindsay, who once had graced the covers of national magazines, could be brought to heel by a police union, so could other politicians. Police were greatly emboldened. For the next half-century, their unions furiously challenged any and all reforms proffered by elected officials and activists, often beating them back. Democrats and Republicans alike cowered.

The recent mass protests against police brutality, catalyzed by George Floyd’s death, may radically alter this dynamic. For perhaps the first time since their formation, police unions are on the defensive, with calls to boot them from the AFL-CIO and even strip them of collective bargaining rights. Activists and scholars committed to a systemic overhauling of police practices have long viewed powerful police unions as a distressing and uniquely formidable roadblock to reform.

At the same time, those in organized labor fear that undoing rights for police unions could lead to more attacks on besieged public-sector workers in liberal and conservative states alike.

“The larger issue is whether police unions, given their liberty implications via their members’ state power to arrest and their oversize political power, should enjoy the same collective bargaining privileges and rights as teachers, sanitation workers, firefighters, and social workers,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University.

Not all police forces are unionized, because a handful of states still forbid public-sector employees from collective bargaining. In Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, police officers cannot collectively bargain.

Elsewhere, particularly in major American cities, police unions are among the most powerful political actors. They derive their clout, in part, from mobilizing their membership to vote in local elections. But more important is the money they spend: millions annually in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to protect favored politicians, defeat reformers, and doom certain ballot initiatives.

Police unions historically derived strength from the singular position they held in society and their willingness to militantly confront the politicians and activists who opposed them. From the 1960s through the 1980s, crime steadily increased nationwide, fueling bipartisan calls for more-punitive policing and sentencing. The influence of police unions grew as they argued in the media that they were the lone safeguard against further disorder and anarchy. Any attempts at introducing new oversight or transparency would be “tying their hands,” which, they say, would allow crime to soar.

In the early 1990s, another New York City mayor, David Dinkins, successfully implemented civilian oversight of the NYPD. Until then, since Lindsay’s defeat, civilians could not investigate police complaints. But New York’s first and only Black mayor had to contend with a massive riot of off-duty police officers outside City Hall that blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and injured journalists.

“There’s no question police unions can stymie reform efforts,” said L. Song Richardson, dean and chancellor’s professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “Police unions empower police. It’s why we see more use of force and fewer disciplinary actions. They have an impact on police culture, solidifying the code of silence so many police departments have. They can also silence more progressive voices among rank and file because of fear of the union.”

Richardson cautioned, however, that changing policing in America will be more complicated than just weakening union power, especially with statutes already on the books that protect police. In June, over loud objections from police union leaders, there was finally enough political will to repeal a four-decade-old law in New York State that shielded police disciplinary records from public view.

Since the 1960s, aggressive lobbying and public campaigns by police unions have won a wide array of protections for rank-and-file police, varying by locality: shielding or expungement of misconduct records, permitting officers to challenge disciplinary findings, bans on civilian oversight, and prevention of anonymous civilian complaints. When federal consent decrees have been imposed on problematic departments, police unions have successfully weakened them on the grounds that they are in violation of their contracts, Richardson said.

Within the broader labor movement, police have a fraught history. In the 19th century, as labor unions rose to prominence and, in some cases, acquired radical leftist politics, there was strong resistance to organizing police officers, since governments and businesses employed them to violently break strikes. Even more moderate unions like the American Federation of Labor were opposed to organizing police: “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.”

The AFL argument was the consensus for the early half of the 20th century. Police officers began to organize into various associations and fraternities to bolster their ability to win wage increases and safeguard working conditions, but these were not labor unions with collective bargaining rights. “Until the 1950s, really, it was largely an answered question: Cops weren’t part of labor,” said David Unger, a labor educator with the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

A flashpoint came in 1919, when Boston police officers went on strike after the police commissioner rejected their attempts to form a union. Several nights of unrest followed the strike, and the National Guard was called in by Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Calvin Coolidge. Thousands of striking officers were eventually fired. Coolidge’s crackdown would help elevate him to the vice presidential nomination in 1920 and the presidency shortly after.

But it took the greater push to organize public-sector employees in the wake of World War II and during a time of growing domestic prosperity to sweep up police. As teachers, sanitation workers, and transportation workers unionized, labor leaders disregarded past opposition to organizing police in the name of broader solidarity with all public employees. In New York, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association became a full-fledged union in 1964, renouncing the ability to strike in return for collective bargaining power. In Chicago, the police won the right to join unions a decade later, in 1975.

But even when goals align, police unions are often reluctant to coalition-build with progressive advocates or even other labor unions. Both left-leaning reformers and the unions themselves were critical of the NYPD’s escalation of stop-and-frisk in the 2000s, with rank-and-file police complaining of department-enforced quotas that forced them into tense confrontations. Robert Gangi, the executive director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, recalled reaching out to the PBA about working together on a public campaign to curtail stop-and-frisk when Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City.

“They said there was no way they would ever join with us,” Gangi said.

For progressives in organized labor, police unions represent another quandary. As the AFL observed more than a century ago, police officers are agents of the state, called upon, at certain points, to break strikes. At the same time, it’s traditionally been anti-labor Republicans who have held police unions in higher esteem. When Scott Walker, the former Republican governor of Wisconsin, stripped bargaining authority for state workers, he spared the state troopers’ union, which supported his gubernatorial bids. The troopers, loyal to Walker, stood guard as protests rocked the state capital in 2011.

Some labor observers worry any move to diminish police unions now could embolden conservative actors who have long sought to undercut public sector employee unions. Republicans like Walker, close to the Koch brothers and other right-wing power brokers, have long dreamed of crushing these unions altogether. A law to strip collective bargaining rights from police on the grounds of their resistance to reform could theoretically be weaponized against public school teachers.

“Criticism of police unions can have an overflow effect and call into question the rights of all public employees,” said William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. “In conservative circles, they’re saying, ‘Look at police. Police are blocking reform efforts within their unions. Neither should the teachers.’”

Not all recent police reform efforts mention union power directly. Campaign Zero, a movement to eliminate police violence that was first launched in 2015, calls for removing certain protections for officers that police unions have won over the years, like allowing an officer 48 hours or more before being interrogated after an incident and prohibiting civilians from having the power to discipline and subpoena officers. Another campaign working to eliminate police violence, #8toAbolition, doesn’t make specific mention of eliminating union provisions.

Labor leaders sympathetic to the movement against police brutality are watching these developments closely. John Samuelsen, the president of Transport Workers International, the union representing more than 150,000 transit workers nationwide, said it was “absurd” that collective bargaining rights for police are now being questioned, calling it an “absolute slippery slope.”

But when New York City transportation workers went on strike, illegally, in 2005, it was the unionized police who came to arrest protesting workers, Samuelsen said. And recently, bus drivers in New York refused to transport protesters whom police had arrested during marches following George Floyd’s death. The local union, TWU Local 100, tweeted that their “bus operators do not work for the NYPD.”

“It’s undeniable police are an arm of the government and the government uses police to break strikes, to disrupt picket lines,” Samuelsen said. “The cops’ answer to this is, ‘I’m doing my job.’ That’s a valid answer, but if you’re just doing your job, your job is in conflict with organized labor.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Campaign Zero had launched the #8toAbolition campaign. The text has been corrected.

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