Abolishing police unions should be part of the broader fight to defund, demilitarize, and ultimately dismantle the U.S. police force.
When Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department killed 46-year-old George Floyd in cold blood last week, he showed the world exactly what kind of man he is. Chauvin has been cited multiple times for using excessive force on the job; he has been involved in at least two other police shootings, including that of Ira Latrell Toles, who is Black, in 2008. Chauvin has repeatedly abused his power, privilege, and authority to menace and terrorize—and he’s now been shown killing a human being on camera. Even so, he remains free to cower in his house and order delivery while demonstrators protest outside. And thanks to the tangled auspices of union affiliation, he’s also someone who technically counts as my “union brother.”
Today just 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, and labor laws bar a vast swath of workers (particularly those who are classified as independent contractors or who are undocumented) from basic labor protections. But police are a high-density union profession—which creates no small amount of distress to labor activists in a moment like this. True, the 2018 Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision on public-sector union organizing had some cop unions nervous about their membership rolls, but police forces remain heavily unionized throughout the country. Police unions represent hundreds of thousands of members in state, federal, and local jurisdictions. (The Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest cop union, has more than 340,000 members.)
And most of these union members are independent from any other labor organizations—which means, in turn, that they’re at best marginally involved with the most pressing mission of today’s labor movement, which concentrates on organizing many of the same low-wage, service-sector communities of color who are disproportionately abused and harassed by police. It wouldn’t make any sort of strategic sense for police-affiliated unions to try and make nice with the rest of the movement. So that leaves one obvious, if tricky, option: abolishing police unions as part of the broader fight to defund, demilitarize, and ultimately dismantle the U.S. police force as it currently exists. Labor leaders should seize upon this crucial moment to fully embrace this aim—and some already have.
However, it’s not exactly a simple or straightforward proposition. The International Union of Police Associations, which represents over 100,000 law enforcement employees as well as emergency medical personnel, is officially affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States. Its membership comprises 55 national and international unions, and it counts 12 million active and retired members. But if the federation wants to prove that it’s seriously committed to racial justice and true worker solidarity, the AFL-CIO must permanently disaffiliate from the IUPA and sever its ties with any and all other police associations.
There is already precedent for such a move. The AFL-CIO has disaffiliated from other unions in the recent past, most notably the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, and most recently, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose leaders criticized the federation for failing to throw its considerable weight behind progressive health care and immigration policy. Given the ongoing epidemic of racist police violence against the Black community and other communities of color in the U.S., there is no better reason—and no better time—to take a stand. It’s already been a long time coming.
After all, the partnership between the police unions and the federation is hardly shatterproof. The IUPA only chartered with the AFL-CIO in 1979; since then, the cops’ union has expanded into affiliations with law enforcement and corrections officers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And much like the AFL-CIO-affiliated National Border Patrol Council, which has overseen its own brand of racist terror, police unions seem to realize they’re not exactly welcome among the unions that have been forced to accept them as peers.
“Legally, unions are responsible for representing their members,” Booker Hodges, a former Minnestota police officer who now works as an assistant commissioner for the state’s Department of Public Safety, wrote in a 2018 blog post on Police One. “The public seems to support this premise when it concerns other labor unions, but not those who represent police officers. Even members of other labor unions, particularly those who belong to educator unions, don’t seem to support this premise when it comes to police unions. Many of them have taken to the streets to protest against police officers, criticized police unions for defending their members and called for an end of binding arbitration for police officers.”
It’s also not as though the police unions’ leaders are taking any pains to show solidarity, or even sympathy, with their fellow workers. Rather, police unions have a long, wretched history of doing exactly the opposite: playing on public fears and misconceptions to push damaging “no angel” narratives about the victims of police violence, while also howling about the “bravery” and “sacrifice” their employees make to “protect” fellow citizens.
For example, on its official website, the IUPA linked to a May 27 Police magazine article that characterized George Floyd’s killing as “the death of a suspect during an arrest in which a Minneapolis officer put his knee on the back of the man’s neck to pin him to the ground.” This was a naked attempt to mislead readers and convince them that Chauvin has to be categorically innocent. It’s also in keeping with the “thin blue line” model of deference to the life-and-death authority granted by reflex to most municipal cops: The law enforcement community—and especially its unions’—first response, when one of its officers is caught red-handed, is to circle the wagons, vilify the victim or survivor, and bat away any criticism or dissent as virtual sedition. If and when reforms are introduced in the wake of an abuse of police powers, police and their unions remain in wagon-circling mode, determined to shoot them down. The bottom line here is all too plain: The police do not want reform; they want the freedom to operate with impunity.
The article IUPA boosted also took care to note that, in Minneapolis, kneeling on a suspect’s neck is apparently considered a “non-deadly force option” (albeit one that is banned elsewhere in Minnesota). And in a gruesome twist, Lieutenant Bob Kroll, the president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, has not only allowed his membership to continue utilizing these violent, fear-based training tactics but also has actively encouraged their use. After Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey banned such tactics in 2019, Kroll pushed back and went so far as to offer free “warrior-style” classes to the union’s 800 members over the remaining three years of Frey’s term. Now Kroll and the union have George Floyd’s blood on their hands and are finally facing some much-needed and long-overdue scrutiny.
One of the only public statements that Kroll has made following Floyd’s murder has been to correct the rumor that Chauvin took part in a recent Trump rally. The photos actually depicted Mike Gallagher, the president of the police union in Bloomington, Minnesota, where a Somali-American police officer was convicted of murdering a white woman in 2017. That officer, Mohamed Noor, holds the dubious honor of being the only Minneapolis police officer to be convicted in an on-duty, fatal shooting, and Kroll drew criticism for throwing said officer, who is Black, under the bus.
For his part, Chauvin had 18 prior complaints filed with Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs, while his accomplice Tou Thao was the subject of six complaints (including one that was still open as of the time of his firing). This is, among other things, a stiff rebuke to the effort to dismiss systemic violence as the work of “a few bad apples.” These two apples were, in fact, already known to be rotten—yet there they were, armed, dangerous, and interacting daily with the public.
Unfortunately, union protection plays no small role in keeping cops like Chauvin and Thao out on the streets. Collective bargaining agreements for police generally include normal language around wages and benefits but can also act as an unbreachable firewall between the cops and those they have injured. Typically, such contracts are chock full of special protections that are negotiated behind closed doors. Employment contract provisions also insulate police from any meaningful accountability for their actions and rig any processes hearings in their favor; fired cops are able to appeal and win their jobs back, even after the most egregious offenses. When Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer who was involved in the 2014 murder of Eric Garner, was finally fired, the police union immediately appealed for his reinstatement and threatened a work slowdown. Now the Sergeants Benevolent Association’s official Twitter account spends most of its time needling New York City Mayor De Blasio and spouting profanity and pro-Trump propaganda.
Ultimately, police unions protect their own, and the contracts they bargain keep killers, domestic abusers, and white supremacists in positions of deadly power—or provide them with generous pensions should they leave. The only solidarity they show is for their fellow police officers; other workers are mere targets. Their interests, as well as those of other right-wing oppressors’ unions like those that represent ICE, border patrol, and prison guards, are diametrically opposed to those of the workers whom the labor movement was launched to protect. As retired NYPD commander Corey Pegues wrote in his memoir, Once a Cop, police unions are “a blanket system of covering up police officers.”
Despite their union membership, police have also been no friend to workers, especially during strikes or protests. Their purpose is to protect property, not people, and labor history is littered with accounts of police moonlighting as strikebreakers or charging in to harass or injure striking workers. The first recorded strike fatalities in U.S. history came at the hands of police, who shot two New York tailors dead as they tried to disperse. During the Battle of Blair Mountain, the police fought striking coal miners on the bosses’ behalf. In 1937, during the Little Steel Strike, Chicago police gunned down 10 striking steelworkers in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. In 1968, days after Dr. Martin Luther King addressed a group of sanitation workers, Memphis cops maced and assaulted the striking workers and their supporters, killing a 16-year-old boy.
As the Industrial Worker noted on Twitter, current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was president of the United Mineworkers of America during the 1989 Pittston Coal Strike, and he “harshly criticized” the police for engaging in violence against the striking miners. Trumka’s long career as a union official has furnished him with decades of object lessons in the lengths to which the state will go to protect financial power and the interests of elites; he has also seen firsthand how readily striking or protesting workers are thrown into the line of fire by the police and military. During his tenure at the AFL-CIO, Trumka has supported progressive causes and spoken out against the legacies of racism, within and without the labor movement. This week, Trumka astutely tweeted that “racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color. This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community.”
In a 2008 speech at a United Steelworkers convention in support of then-candidate Barack Obama, Trumka quoted conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, saying “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” More than a decade later, it’s all too clear that evil continues to triumph. Doing nothing in this context means allowing police unions to continue holding a comfortable berth within the labor movement, even as they keep shielding and supporting racists, abusers, and killers. As Trumka has also said, we can no longer sit still and avoid confronting issues of racial and economic inequality.
It’s imperative to take action now. The AFL-CIO has a chance to atone for its past racial transgressions by moving toward a more just, equitable, and intersectional labor movement. Disaffiliating with the IUPA is only a start, but it would be an important step in the right direction. The decision would draw a line in the sand and show the federation’s broader membership that union leaders truly believe that Black lives matter—and that the working class deserves to feel safe and protected in our own communities. The Industrial Workers of the World has long barred law enforcement (and prison guards) from its membership rolls; it’s high time for the AFL-CIO to follow its lead.
The age-old query “Which side are you on?” has rung out at rallies and picket lines and vigils since Florence Reece put the slogan to paper in 1931. It hung in the air while police were maiming striking coal miners then, and it remains on the lips of the millions of modern workers fighting for a fair shake. As we once more raise our voices and ask ourselves that question, the only acceptable response is crystal-clear: that we’re on the side of the workers, not their abusers and oppressors. As Reece once sang, there can be no neutrals here.
Kim Kelly is a writer and organizer based in Philadelphia.