Police protest

Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

Published — June 5, 2020

As protests grow, big labor sides with police unions

Police in riot gear prepare to disperse a group of protesters as they march through downtown for a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The latest in an historically fraught relationship among police, labor and civil rights movement


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Labor unions exist to protect workers, but most workers aren’t authorized to use deadly force as part of their jobs.  

Police unions have written labor contracts that bar law enforcement agencies across the country from immediately interrogating or firing officers after egregious acts of misconduct. 

Leaders of the country’s other labor unions are tiptoeing around the subject as their members join protests in hundreds of U.S. cities this week over the killing of George Floyd. Labor leaders have strongly denounced police officers’ actions in that case and called on lawmakers to address systemic racism. But they’re suggesting that collective bargaining agreements shouldn’t be on the table. They’ve been careful not to blame police unions for the problem, choosing to embrace them instead.

Police union contracts are not normal collective bargaining agreements. Police unions have crafted a complex web of disciplinary rules that critics say makes it impossible to hold police accountable for killing unarmed Black citizens. After a Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground for more than 8 minutes while fellow officers stood by and watched, many want to see these union contract rules reformed or dismantled.

“The short answer is not to disengage and just condemn,” Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said Wednesday on a press call about racial justice. “The answer is to totally re-engage and educate.”

(Editor’s note: The author of this article is a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America, a member union of the AFL-CIO.)

Public Integrity reached out to leaders of 10 major unions and labor groups. None were willing to talk about police unions. Trumka, of the AFL-CIO, was too busy to chat. The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn’t fit a call into his schedule. Teamsters President James Hoffa declined to comment. 

Silence from the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers.

Labor leaders briefly talked about police unions in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday. They seemed uncomfortable.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said no union contracts should shield employee misconduct, but that focusing on collective bargaining is a “false choice.”

“I think we have to do something nationally about the demilitarization of policing,” she said. 

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York, said he’s not surprised that the labor movement doesn’t want to focus on police unions. It wasn’t until the police killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 that the labor movement began to acknowledge racism in policing, he said. But more existential questions about reforming police unions are still taboo.

“It’s a very delicate subject, it’s rarely discussed openly and out loud,” Freeman said.

The labor movement’s quiet support for police unions comes at a critical moment. News outlets have described how Derek Chauvin, the officer who tackled Floyd, had at least 17 complaints filed against him but never got more than a written reprimand. That has led some criminal justice reform advocates to call for changes that would curtail — or outright abolish — the power of police unions. The labor movement’s silence on the subject so far suggests that it won’t be an ally in that fight.

Police union tension with labor movement

Police unions have a fraught relationship with the wider U.S. labor movement. 

Labor historians trace the tension back to the late 1800s, before police unions even existed. City officials would dispatch cops to break up frequent labor strikes, and they often arrested union leaders and beat workers with batons.

“Police were seen as tools for repressing unions,” Freeman said.

The most infamous example is the Haymarket massacre of 1886. Chicago police officers killed a worker, and injured seven others, who were on strike to demand an eight-hour work day.

At the time, only workers in the private sector would organize. It wasn’t until the 1920s when that started to change. Government employees, such as schoolteachers and sanitation workers, began organizing to demand better pay and benefits. Police officers wanted that, too. 

The American Federation of Labor, which later would become the AFL-CIO, started letting police into its ranks in 1919. By the 1950s and 60s, police unions were common.

While the power of public-sector unions was growing, so was the civil rights movement, and racial tensions ended up driving a wedge between police unions and organized labor.

Newspapers across the U.S. shocked readers with images of police violence against Black protestors in the South during the 1960s. Instead of siding with police, the labor movement aligned itself with the civil rights movement (though Martin Luther King Jr. would describe that support as “conditional”). For example, the Los Angeles labor council fought for justice for the family of 17-year-old Augustín Salcido, who was shot and killed when a LAPD officer was trying to arrest him for allegedly selling stolen watches. The council immediately put out a statement, according to Jacobin magazine.

“Mexican-American members of our union in the thousands can testify to the beatings, intimidations, shake-downs, uncalled for arrests and terrorism carried on by the police in the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles,” they wrote. The police officer was charged with murder and later acquitted.

That was a rare rebuke of police by labor unions. To this day, the national labor movement works hard to avoid angering police unions.

Post-Ferguson shift

The police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri., in 2014 of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, shifted the conversation. Street riots highlighted the strain between Black communities and militarized police.

The AFL-CIO began to talk more openly about racism in the police force. But Trumka, head of the powerful labor federation, still took care not to alienate the police union that represented the police officer, Darren Wilson.

“Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother,” Trumka said at the time. “Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.”

The AFL-CIO was fielding calls and emails from local union leaders about how to support Black members and take part in the fight for racial justice. So that same year, the AFL-CIO created the Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, to address what the federation called “police-on-black crime,” among other problems facing Black communities.

In 2017, the commission published a report with a long list of recommendations for unions, such as urging lawmakers to mandate racial bias training for cops and to abolish the for-profit prison system. Yet the report barely mentioned the role of police unions in the racial justice movement, merely noting that “police unions resent when outsiders question their judgment or actions in the line of duty.” The report suggested that local unions and labor councils should host forums between police unions and community members.

Nowhere did the report mention how police union contracts typically include language to hide complaints against police officers from the public. It didn’t describe the arbitration clauses that often force police departments to rehire fire, misbehaving cops. Or how police unions have successfully lobbied for state laws granting police officers far more job security than the average U.S. worker.

“These are armed, trained people who are totally not accountable to the community they are policing,” said Sam Mitrani, a labor historian at College of DuPage in Ilinois.

Labor leaders are probably hesitant to take on police unions because many of them represent law enforcement officers through their local affiliates. SEIU, CWA and AFSCME all do. The AFL-CIO also represents one of the largest police unions, the International Union of Police Associations, which has more than 15,000 members.

Tensions between the IUPA and the broader labor movement spilled into the public after the police choking of an unarmed Black man named Eric Garner in New York City.

Trumka and other national union leaders co-signed an open letter to then President Barack Obama regarding police reform and the “long list of black men and boys who have died under eerily similar circumstances.”

Sam Cabral, president of the IUPA (which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO), was not happy about it.

“In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York, the International Union of Police Associations withheld comment until facts were known,” wrote its president, Sam Cabral, according to Al Jazeera. “We wish the administration as well as the president of the AFL-CIO had been as thoughtful. I believe that anyone making pronouncements before knowing the facts has an agenda, not a position.”

Two local union affiliates in California urged the AFL-CIO to kick the IUPA out of the federation. That didn’t happen.

In December, Public Integrity reported that IUPA’s charitable arm, which says it raises money to help the families of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty, spends most of its money on telemarketing services. IUPA’s charitable arm also claimed to be supported by several high-profile corporations — claims that Public Integrity in January revealed to be untrue.

Now, after Floyd’s death, Trumka is careful not to rile up the IUPA, even as he calls for the president of the local police union in Minneapolis to step down. (That union is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.) And so far, the IUPA has said nothing about Floyd’s death or the officer who killed him. 

Public Integrity reached out to the IUPA and other major police unions, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association. None of them responded.

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