AFL-CIO Leader Richard Trumka Defends Police Unions

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Above photo: Richard Trumka has defended the inclusion of police unions in the AFL-CIO. By Alex Wong via Getty Images.

As the AFL-CIO struggles with a growing debate over its alignment with police unions, the disagreement inside of the labor coalition itself is becoming more pointed. At an internal meeting of the Executive Council on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke out against the idea of kicking police unions out of the coalition—confusingly, by comparing them to the employers that unions bargain against.

In an exchange with a union president who spoke out forcefully against the historic role of police as foes of labor, Trumka defended the police as “community-friendly,” and argued that if unions could learn to work with employers to handle contentious issues, they should be able to do the same with cops and their unions.

Since the beginning of the ongoing nationwide protests against police violence, there has been a heated discussion about what role police unions should play in the labor movement. Many progressives want to sever ties with police unions altogether, while others—particularly public-sector union leaders, who fear that any attacks on police unions will translate into attacks on all collective bargaining in the public sector—counsel moderation and “engagement” with police unions to push various reforms.

The AFL-CIO, a coalition of 55 unions representing 12.5 million members, has found itself in the center of the controversy. On June 8—a week after the AFL-CIO’s Washington headquarters was burned during a protest—the Writers Guild of America, East, an AFL-CIO member union, passed a formal resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, the coalition’s police union member. (I am one of the 21 WGAE council members who voted on the resolution).

The leadership of the AFL-CIO received the resolution unenthusiastically. They immediately put out a statement saying that they “take a different view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. …We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Trumka’s second-in-command, advocated instead developing “codes of excellence” to encourage police unions to change from within.

But the issue has not disappeared. Union locals and progressive factions within larger unions have taken up the call. The King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle police union last week, and even SEIU leader Mary Kay Henry, the head of the most powerful union outside of the AFL-CIO, said that disaffiliation “must be considered” if police unions don’t reform. Last Friday, the proposal from the Writers Guild received its first serious and direct discussion at a meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, the elected body that governs the group.

According to a source who was on that call who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of internal deliberations, Mark Dimondstein, the head of the American Postal Workers Union, raised the issue, saying that the AFL-CIO would eventually have no choice but to deal with the issue head-on. Citing the WGAE’s resolution, Dimondstein said that the AFL-CIO needed to grapple with “irreconcilable differences” between police unions and other union members because the role of the police is to protect corporate power, not the power of working people. He called for Trumka to distribute the resolution to the Executive Council for further discussion at a future meeting, and then voiced his own opinion that any police who beat union members could not be his “brother or sister.”

In response, Trumka, who was leading the meeting, pushed back against some of Dimondstein’s points. Trumka, a former leader of the United Mine Workers, said that he had seen anti-worker police violence in the mining industry, but argued that

“I’d just point out that we have irreconcilable differences with every employer we deal with, yet we deal with them,” Trumka said. He told Dimondstein that in the same way that unions use collective bargaining to deal with employers, so, too, could organized labor use the process to “narrow” differences with police unions.

The disagreement shows that the dispute over the AFL-CIO’s affiliation with police is not going away and that an internal battle may be looming. Also noteworthy is Trumka’s somewhat baffling comparison of police unions to employers, as an argument against disaffiliation—an argument that would seem to imply that police unions are an opponent to be bargained against.

Employers, of course, are not part of the AFL-CIO.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at

  • Jeff

    This is a perfect example of what’s wrong with unions today (and for the past at least 30 years). Instead of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” unions now are basically, “I got mine, too bad if you can’t get yours.” From supporting all sorts of anti-environmental crap to supporting the police state, unions have totally lost the respect and support I had for them. And I organized a union at a job in the 1980s (with the IWW)!

  • Stephen Morrell

    The trade unions have had plenty wrong with them for a long time, well over a century. In 1904, Daniel De Leon characterised sell-out union bureaucrats as the ‘labor lieutenants of the capitalist class’. While trade unions are the elemental defense organisations of the working class, they’ve historically been saddled with reformist and even reactionary leaderships beholden to the capitalist class. In fact, if trade unions consistently were achieving real gains for the working class their leaders would soon either be co-opted, framed up, or the unions themselves made illegal and smashed. In most cases when allowed to exist, union leaderships have been co-opted. With such co-opted leaderships, workers struggles and class battles have been consistently stabbed in the back and otherwise sold out.

    Certainly trade union bureaucratic misleaders like Trumka epitomise the abject state of the organised labour movement today, where union membership has been sent to all-time lows on the back of sell out after sell out. And it must be so infuriating for rank and file union members to see their hard-earned union dues going straight into the pockets of Democrat swells like Pelosi, Schumer and Clinton.

    Moves to get the cops out of the union movement are much needed and could serve as a galvanising issue that hopefully splits the current misleadership of the unions, opening them up to serving their original stated purpose of defending the interests of the working class. However, in the current period the unions desperately need a revolutionary leadership to transform them from ostensibly defensive working class organisations into offensive weapons of the working class to wage class warfare with the sole object of taking power and expropriating the bourgeoisie. This is the historic task of the working class, and with the right leadership the trade unions can well serve the purpose.

    Cop ‘unions’ or ‘unions’ of prison screws and security guards aren’t unions but criminal ‘brotherhoods’ whose existence reflects the interests of the defenders of the rulers. However, not only should cop ‘unions’ be driven out of trade union federations like the AFL-CIO, but prison screws and security guards who are members of otherwise normal workers unions (eg, SEIU and AFSCME) must be expelled also, and immediately. The guard dogs of capital have no place in the labour movement at all. None. And the likes of Trumka have no business allowing any of the class enemy inside the defensive organisations of the working class. None.

  • IconoclastTwo

    “Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, Trumka’s second-in-command, advocated instead developing “codes of excellence” to encourage police unions to change from within.”

    I thought this sentence was a lot funnier than it ought to be.

    ““I’d just point out that we have irreconcilable differences with every employer we deal with, yet we deal with them,”

    But they’re external to you in a very real sense. The police unions aren’t external to you (unfortunately), but the way they act, actually undermines exactly the kinds of actions you’d need to take to defend everybody else.

  • richardprofumo

    In the class war which side would the cops be on?