‘HISTORICALLY and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of police as labourers.’
This powerful phrase was contained in a resolution calling for the expulsion of a US police union from the US trade union movement as a whole. US union, UAW Local 2865 became the first local union branch to call for the expulsion of a police union from the AFL-CIO, the US equivalent of the TUC.
Citing the upsurge in police killings of black teenagers the UAW slammed police unions for ‘support for politicians opposed to police accountability, and dogged defence of officers accused of abuse’. The UAW Local 2865 branch insisted in the resolution that the federation kick out the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) and that other locals should follow suit.
The UAW local, which is comprised of 13,000 teaching assistants and other student workers on University of California campuses, specifically decried cop unions. So what business do academic workers have passing resolutions against police officers? The proper constituency of a union isn’t simply its membership, but the entire working class.
After a grand jury exonerated the Staten Island police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, Patrick Lynch, the president of New York City’s largest police union, lauded the jury decision and pointed the finger at Garner himself. ‘Mr Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest,’ Lynch claimed in December.
When two police officers were killed a couple weeks later, Lynch accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of ‘fostering anti-cop enmity’ and thus having ‘blood on his hands’. The police union membership clearly approved of such bilious statements, turning their backs on de Blasio at the police officers’ funerals and then reelecting Lynch last month.
Police unions outside of New York City have also behaved deplorably over the past year. The police union representing Ferguson cops raised money online for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown dead. Baltimore’s did the same for the officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray’s death. He was choked to death while repeatedly crying out, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Union raffled off a Glock handgun as a fundraiser for the cop accused of killing twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.
It’s precisely this reach-for-the-baton worldview that spurred the UC academic workers to seek the removal of the IUPA, the only union in the AFL-CIO that exclusively represents law-enforcement personnel. When confronted with information of police unions’ actions, many so-called ‘progressives’ in the union movement accuse those who attack the police unions of ‘anti-union hostility’.
But if the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us anything, it’s that cops are different from other public-sector employees. Social workers and teachers don’t fire bullets into the hearts and heads of unarmed people, or impose brute order when social unrest proves too acute for less coercive pacification.
The word ‘union’ shouldn’t be treated as an acid bath that magically disappears this social function.
As Kristian Williams reminds us in his indispensable Our Enemies in Blue, ‘Police organise as police, not workers’. Hoping for police unions to ‘reform’ is also delusional. The GI movement encouraged rebellion within the ranks to terminate the Vietnam War; police unions, by contrast, have repeatedly fought to retain and expand the state’s coercive apparatus.
The few ‘reform organisations’ that do exist, such as the National Black Police Association, have failed miserably. If anything, reform groups would benefit from being able to organise without the influence of an overarching union. The same goes for individual officers.
On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St Louis, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer. Last September, in the wake of mass protests in Ferguson, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka actually said that Darren Wilson and Michael Brown’s mother had something in common: they were both union members!
‘Our brother killed our sister’s son,’ Trumka said in a speech at the Missouri AFL-CIO convention, ‘and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.’ Trumka’s intent, of course, was to express ‘empathy’ and signal the AFL-CIO’s commitment to racial justice, and the speech did contain plenty of commendable denunciations of racism and police brutality.
But the moment underscored the problem with inviting agents of oppression into a movement founded on fighting it. Wilson, though not represented by a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, was still counted as an ‘upstanding union member’ even though he shot dead an unarmed black teenager. As the UC academic workers recognise, there needs to be a clear line of delineation.
A labour movement that values the Michael Browns and Freddie Grays and Sandra Blands has no room for police unions.
• A group of US iron workers has left work sites of the Westin Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire and other construction projects to protest for higher wages, health benefits and better work conditions. The eight ‘rodbusters’ began the strike almost six weeks ago, asking for wages to be increased to the national average.
A ‘rodbuster’ is a construction worker who installs steel reinforcing rods, known as ‘rebar’. ‘We’re the lowest in the country,’ said Jason Reece, who has tied rebar for 18 years. ‘Everybody’s getting … between $25 and $45 (an hour). We get $15 and $14.’
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the national average wage for a reinforcing iron and rebar worker is $26.35 an hour. Tennessee’s median average hourly wage in 2014 was $20.45.
The group is also concerned with the lack of health benefits despite the dangerous conditions of the job. ”We’ve got battle scars all over us,’ Reece said. ‘It’ll be so hot, like right now, that steel’s sitting in the sun all day and you pick it up and put it on your shoulder; we’ve got brand marks for life on us.’
Carlos Luis, a community organiser for Middle Tennessee Jobs with Justice, said the group’s first action was a refused attempt to meet with employer Chad Hillis. Refusing to recognise the strike, the owner of K&D LLC said. ‘When they walked off, they quit. I’ve got contracts; we’ve got deadlines to make and stuff, you know. No, I don’t want to meet with them.’
While the organisers plan to strike until their intentions are met, Hillis plans to run his business without changes. ‘What I’m going to do is be glad that they’re gone, kind of weeding out the ones that don’t want to work, that want something for nothing,’ Hillis said. ‘We’re just going to keep right on working, doing a good job like we’ve been doing.’
Hillis said inexperienced iron workers begin working for $11 an hour and receive raises based on their quality of work. If the worker shows up every day, of course he’s going to get raises sooner,’ he said. ‘It’s paid on how you work – on your work ethic.’
The group is receiving financial support from various organisations, including churches and the Iron Workers Union. Although the striking iron workers are not unionised, the strike is an attempt to speak for fellow iron workers in the area and help bring higher wages, said Luis, Reece and fellow iron worker Stephon Eckles. ‘It’s just so different from what it has to be,’ Eckles said.
• United Steelworkers (USW) International President Leo Gerard issued the following statement today after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalised its work on the Clean Power Plan:
‘Since 1990, the USW has been a leader in the labour community on the issue of climate change. Having long been at the forefront of this debate, we were one of the first industrial unions to endorse a comprehensive climate change bill.
‘Building a clean energy economy and solving the challenge of climate change require new products, updated technologies and streamlined processes. The USW continues to work to ensure that these are created and sourced here in the United States, and built and powered by American workers. We believe well-designed policies that address climate change and ensure the strength of our nation’s energy and manufacturing sectors are compatible.
‘Over the last year, the USW has worked in good faith with EPA to highlight key concerns with the rule that was proposed in June 2014. The EPA has been responsive to these concerns and we are in the process of assessing the changes made to the final rule. It is essential that the final rule achieves its intended goal of reducing our nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide, and capitalises on the broader potential of maintaining and creating jobs across our nation in the energy and manufacturing industries.
‘Much of this work must take place at the state and local level and include the perspectives of labour, industry and state agencies, as well as environmental and community groups. Complementary federal-level policies that deal with the challenges of funding and deploying technologies, and that address carbon leakage with nations who do not adopt similar policies, are also necessary. The USW is committed to helping design state implementation plans that balance the need to address climate change with the need to ensure that US workers and industries are not unfairly hurt in the process.’
The USW represents 850,000 workers in North America employed in many industries that include metals, rubber, chemicals, paper, oil refining and the service and public sectors.