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Published — September 11, 2020

After another shooting, big labor resists calls to shun police unions

Police clear a park during clashes with protesters on Aug. 25, 2020, outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., during demonstrations over the shooting of Jacob Blake. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)


This week, senior reporter Alexia Fernández Campbell looks at controversy within the labor movement over the role of police unions, and we’re excited to bring you a sneak peek of a new Public Integrity podcast, “The Heist,” accompanied by a Freedom of Information Act contest and an upcoming discussion with economist Robert Reich.

— Matt DeRienzo, editor in chief,

This edition: police unions

National labor unions are resisting pressure to oust police from their ranks. Again.

After a police officer shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23, labor leaders were quick to denounce police brutality and racism. The AFL-CIO launched a task force to focus on policing and racial justice.

The influential labor group’s response to the shooting made no mention of controversy surrounding police unions and their role in the labor movement. Civil rights groups have called out police unions for protecting bad cops, and those cries  are growing louder as more police violence is caught on video. 

The white officer who shot Blake, a Black man, belongs to the Kenosha Police Professional Organization, a union unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. Its last contract with the city included a “Bill of Rights” for officers under investigation for using excessive force — a common provision in police union contracts. The language limits when, where and how investigators can question officers when there is an allegation. It even bans investigators from using “offensive language” toward a cop under investigation.

Critics say these contracts shield police from accountability and make communities less safe.

“Labor has to make a decision about whether it is going to do something or nothing,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “We’re beyond task forces and commissions and studies.”

Harris was one of dozens of academics, local lawmakers and civil rights activists who signed a letter in June urging the AFL-CIO to expel cops from its member unions. 

The AFL-CIO did not respond to questions about the controversy.

Civil rights groups began pressuring the AFL-CIO and national labor unions to kick out law enforcement after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd — another Black man — in June. Several member unions in the federation represent corrections and immigration officers through their local affiliates; the International Union of Police Associations is also a member.

Richard Trumka, head of the federation, has insisted that talking  to police unions will lead to change.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

So far, the AFL-CIO has rejected the idea. Richard Trumka, head of the federation, has insisted that talking  to police unions will lead to change. The organization is likely hesitant to oust police officers because its unions have thousands of dues-paying members in law enforcement. The IUPA, for example, represented more than 23,000 police officers through its local affiliates in 2019, according to tax filings.

“That was expected on some level, but it’s also disappointing,” said Scott Roberts, head of criminal justice for the civil rights group Color of Change, referring to the AFL-CIO’s hesitance.

Roberts has been talking to union leaders within the AFL-CIO for weeks, asking them to pressure the organization to expel police. But so far, the Writers Guild of America, East, is the only major union that has passed a resolution urging leadership to do that.

The AFL-CIO has instead launched another racial justice task forcethat, among other things, will focus on how to improve policing. Notably missing are representatives of IUPA, the only police union in the labor federation.

The IUPA did not respond to a request to comment. Nor did other national unions that represent law enforcement officers, including the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America.

The federation has kicked out unions in the past for not aligning with its values. Starting in 1949, when the group was called the Congress of Industrial Organizations, leaders expelled 11 member unions over their alleged ties to the Communist Party. The AFL-CIO booted another two affiliates in 1957 over corruption allegations.

Roberts, from Color of Change, said the fight over police unions will continue.

“The AFL-CIO is a federation of unions; it will take a lot to move an institution that big and with that many stakeholders,” he said. “Our strategy is to move the member unions one by one.”  

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

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