Citing a “long history of police intervention in labor politics and its complicity in racial violence,” the UAW members say they want the cops’ union out of the country’s largest labor federation. (Ben Musseig / Flickr)
United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union representing 13,000 teaching assistants and other student workers throughout the University of California, called on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) in a resolution passed by its governing body on July 25.
The resolution came in the wake of a letter written by the UAW’s Black Interests Coordinating Committee (BICC). The group formed in December 2014 in response to the acquittals of police officers in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and is largely inspired by recent actions in the Black Lives Matter movement. With the letter, BICC aims to “start a really difficult conversation that the labor movement has had in the past and needs to continue to have around the intersections of race and labor, economic privation and racial disparity,” according to BICC member Brandon Buchanan, a graduate student currently studying Sociology at UC Davis who serves as Head Steward.
The letter charges that police associations operate in ways that are antithetical to the mission statement of the AFL-CIO, particularly its stated goal “to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; [and] to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms.”
It provides historical evidence to its allegations, saying, “Police unions in particular emerge out of a long history of police intervention in labor politics and its complicity in racial violence,” before referencing deadly disputes with activist workers in the 19th century, the defense of Jim Crow segregation, the lobbying that enabled the circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death and the crackdown on the Occupy movement across the country as examples of American police acting as a “violent supressive force.”
The letter can be read in full below:
We, UAW Local 2865, call on the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to end their affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations. It is our position that this organization is inimical to both the interests of labor broadly, and Black workers in particular. Historically and contemporarily, police unions serve the interests of police forces as an arm of the state, and not the interests of police as laborers. Instead, their “unionization” allows police to masquerade as members of the working-class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the oppression of the working-class. We ask that the AFL-CIO recognize this history and take steps to serve the interests of its Black workers and community members.
The AFL-CIO’s official mission is “to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; [and] to vanquish oppression, privation, and cruelty in all their forms.” This, we argue, is the calling of a union to be a force for advancing the lives of workers. Within this framework, police unions fail to meet the criteria of a union or a valid part of the labor movement.
While it is true that police are workers, and thus hypothetically subject to the same kinds of exploitation as other laborers, they are also the militarized, coercive arm of the state. It is the job of the police to protect capital and, consequently, maintain class society. How can there ever be solidarity between law enforcement and the working class when elites call upon police and their organizations to quell mass resistance to poverty and inequality? The police force exists solely to uphold the status quo. Their material survival depends on it, and they hold a vested interest in the preservation and expansion of the most deplorable practices of the state.
We have seen this vested interest manifest itself very visibly over the past year. By calling themselves a union, police have utilized union resources to defend brutality and anti-Blackness. Police unions channel resources towards upholding racist practices in a few key ways:
- Lobbying to oppose independent oversight by civilians and other governmental entities.
- Campaigning for political actors who support limited police accountability.
- Defending officers’ crimes of racist brutality in court.
These elements have clearly shaped the context that enabled the tragic circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death and speak to the contemporary moment in which Black lives are considered less important than job protection for police. Advocated for by the police union, The Maryland Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) aims to protect the rights of officers above the needs of the community. In cases where police misconduct is reported, such as in instances of “rough rides,” police officers do not have to answer questions until 10 days have passed and a lawyer has been consulted. Subsequently, the overall review process outlined by the LEOBoR empowers a hearing board of fellow officers to have final approval over any penalties imposed upon accused officers—this has resulted in the preservation of employment for nearly all accused officers despite the 3,048 complaints have been filed against 850 Baltimore PD officers (30% of its police force) since 2012. If complaints do manage to make it past this extra layer of due process, union legal resources are used to defend the officers against charges of racist misconduct in court. By unconditionally insulating officers accused of brutality from facing consequences, police unions maintain the status quo of racial violence that upholds the exploitation of Black communities in particular, as well as other communities of color.
We recognize that these are not isolated incidents, but arise from a long history of policing as a profession. Police unions in particular emerge out of a long history of police intervention in labor politics andits complicity in racial violence. The modern U.S. institution of the police has roots in the repressive demands of powerful white capitalists. Overseers and slave patrols in the South evolved alongside the growing need to maintain “order” in early urban areas in the North. In fact, armed “night watches” mirrored policing practices by being a front line of defense against Native American raids on colonies. Policing in the U.S. has always served the needs of colonialism, racism, and capitalism by protecting the property of those who would steal land and exploit the labor of others. Neither the property of indigenous people nor the products of the labor of both workers and slaves has ever come under protection of the institution of the police. It has only ever been the property of the powerful that the police protect. Maintaining this system of relations is the so called “order” that police have sworn to defend.
In fact, early attempts by labor to organize and fight for rights and better pay and working conditions have historically been met with violence. These instances are many: from picket line fights to police enforced lock-outs; from crackdowns on rallies, like the Thompson Square “riot” of 1874 at a rally for the unemployed in New York City, when police indiscriminately brutalized men, women, and children; to massacres committed by private police, like the two dozen men, women, and children killed in the Ludlow Massacre; and by public police, notably during the Haymarket Massacre we commemorate every year on May Day.
Modern examples exist as well: police played a significant role in defending Jim Crow segregation. We have all seen the images and video of police siccing dogs on Black protesters, shooting them with water cannons, or billy clubbing them. Racist violence was not confined to the pre-Civil Rights South; Philadelphia police bombed the headquarters of Black radical organization MOVE in 1985, killing 11 people, including children. Recall also the assassination of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther Party, by the Chicago PD in collaboration with the FBI. Very recently, the nationally-coordinated effort to crack down on and ultimately destroy the Occupy movement involved police departments across the country working in unison to stop the most effective modern social movement in opposition to economic inequality. American police as an institution have historically been and continue to be the violent supressive force used to maintain a white supremacist capitalist system on settler colonial land. If labor is to ever truly exert its power and challenge the corporate rule of the U.S., we will need to break the illusion that the police are part of the family of unions that make up organized labor.
The AFL-CIO is an organization truly concerned with issues facing the laborers of America today. The history of policing and its use of union resources to silence those who are harmed by police brutality runs contrary to this mission statement. As Shawn Gude recently put it, to become agents of progressive change and labor solidarity, police unions would need to work actively to negate their own power and abolish the police. We endorse this position, and call on the AFL-CIO to do so as well. As a union, we argue that the International Union of Police Associations fails to adhere to the goals of the Federation, and therefore should not be included in the list of unions which are fighting for worker’s rights.
The letter was presented by Buchanan on behalf of BICC to the joint council of UAW Local 2865, the local’s governing board. According to Buchanan, the letter and its call to the AFL-CIO were endorsed overwhelmingly.
“The AFL-CIO is an enormous part of the labor movement. It has a lot of say, it influences elections, it is an organization which serves to build a lot of solidarity between a number of different unions,” Buchanan told In These Times. “But at the same time, one of the things that we noticed is that it also has these police associations which are a part of it—police associations who have consistently worked not necessarily in the interest of workers, in particular black workers, but instead have upheld a capitalist status quo as well as white supremacy.”
The endorsed letter echoes the sentiment made by Shawn Gude last year at Jacobin:
When there’s mass resistance to poverty and inequality, it’s the cops who are summoned to calm the panic-stricken hearts of the elite. They bash some heads, or infiltrate and disrupt some activist groups, and all is right in the world again.
Such is the inherent defect of law-enforcement unionism: It’s peopled by those with a material interest in maintaining and enlarging the state’s most indefensible practices.
Earlier this year, in an article entitled “Blood On Their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions,” human rights attorney Flint Taylor gave an overview of such sordid practices for In These Times.
Buchanan says that while the endorsement came with an overwhelming majority of the governing board voting in favor, there was concern from certain members who questioned whether the endorsement would alienate those who had relationships with people in the police force.
“This is not about individuals. We’re not talking about or calling out individual people. We’re calling out structures of power,” Buchanan stresses in response. “We’re not saying that [police officers] are individually bad. But what we’re talking about is things like vilifying black bodies to protect police officers who brutalize and kill black people and then get away with it with the support of these police associations.”
UAW 2865’s governing body made similar waves with its activist streak last year when it became the first American local to endorse the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
While numerous American unions have held actions against police brutality in the past year (such as the May Day port shutdowns by ILWU Local 10 in Oakland and ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina), UAW 2865 is the first local to explicitly call for disassociation between police unions and the rest of organized labor currently operating under the umbrella of the national federation.
In a story detailing the history of police unions and organized labor for Al Jazeera America in December, Ned Resnikoff reported that an AFL-CIO spokesperson downplayed any tension between the two sides, saying, “The AFL-CIO is like any family. … With 57 affiliated unions and a diversity of membership there is bound to be some disagreement.”
Buchanan believes that disaffiliation between the AFL-CIO and IUPA would mean that the IUPA would lose legitimacy as an organization and thus transfer AFL-CIO support from police associations and instead towards people of color and their communities, who he says have been traditionally locked out of organizing spaces.
“It’s a question of legitimacy. Having [the AFL-CIO] disaffiliate demonstrates that if our union organizing is meant to address the interests of workers—and black workers are included in that—then these police associations are inimical to those interests,” Buchanan says.