The AFL-CIO’s Police Union Problem Is Bigger Than You Think

Some of the most controversial cop unions are unaffiliated with national groups, while large and progressive unions include an influential police presence.

After the near murder of a 75-year-old man on a sidewalk in Buffalo, New York, the city’s police union, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, responded with organized demonstrations of support for the officers who shoved the elderly man to the ground. 

After the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation was defiant, with President Bob Kroll, who had recently defended his role in three police shootings, attacking Floyd as a criminal, and lashing out at local politicians for not allowing the police to be rougher on protesters. The Sergeants Benevolent Association in New York City, which has attracted reprobation for doxxing NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara, has also moved to a furious war footing. The Louisville Metro Police Union in Kentucky rallied around the killers of Breonna Taylor, as the officers involved haven’t been fired, let alone charged.

The reactionary intransigence has brought into focus the role of police unions in creating conditions for unchecked violence. On June 8, the Writers Guild of America East, a 6,000-member AFL-CIO affiliate that represents television writers and digital journalists (including at The Intercept), passed a resolution that urged its parent body to “disaffiliate” the International Union of Police Associations, the sole police-only union in the federation. “As long as police unions continue to wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability, no one is safe,” WGAE wrote in a statement. 

The resolution drew broad support inside the AFL-CIO but also opposition, and it has so far been rejected. Lost in the debate, however, is that the unions who were the immediate inspiration for the resolution would be untouched. Neither the Minneapolis, New York City, Louisville, or Buffalo unions are part of the IUPA or any other AFL-CIO union. Three are independent unions and one, in Louisville, belongs to the arch-reactionary Fraternal Order of Police. And, adding more complexity to advocates of disentangling police unions from the broader organized labor movement, the IUPA, with its 100,000 members, is far from the only union within the AFL-CIO that represents cops.

Police have a small but politically and ideologically influential presence in some of the country’s largest and most progressive unions, like the United Food and Commercial Workers; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Government Employees; and the Communications Workers of America. All are major members of the AFL-CIO union federation. 

The Change to Win union federation, which broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, is home to the Service Employees International Union, which has thousands of law enforcement members in its International Brotherhood of Police Organizations/National Association of Government Employees chapter, as well as the Teamsters, which represents tens of thousands of police and corrections officers.

Police unions, compared to others within organized labor, tend to be more rigidly ideological and are adept at organizing.

Police unions, compared to others within organized labor, tend to be more rigidly ideological and are adept at organizing. That combination means police unions can often pull their coalition partners — particularly in corrections, probation, and the building trades — to the right on issues that go beyond strict policing concerns.

Bill Fletcher Jr., a former education director at both the AFL-CIO and AFGE, and a leading expert on race and labor, said that he has witnessed past efforts at major unions to address issues related to criminal justice reform or racism, and seen them collapse in the face of internal police opposition. “The leadership of the overall union will cower in the face of this” law enforcement opposition, he said, “in part because they are afraid that the law enforcement units will leave. That has happened in every union that I’ve worked with and every union that I have observed.” And unlike other groups of union members, police in particular will often vote with their feet to join other unions, a practice that is very uncommon in the rest of labor — giving them additional leverage over internal union deliberations.

“Having law enforcement units in other unions, whether it is AFSCME, UFCW or the Teamsters, has a very conservative impact on the union,” Fletcher said. “The law enforcement units tend to be very well organized and very conservative. They will intervene when there are union debates on anything that has to do with law enforcement, the movement for black lives or issues of immigration and detention.”   

Indeed, the AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million members in over 50 affiliated unions, swiftly rejected the WGAE’s resolution. “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. Many of our unions have adopted a code of excellence for their members and industries that could and should be applied to those who are sworn to protect and serve,” the AFL-CIO’s board wrote in a June 9 statement. “We believe the labor movement must hold our own institutions accountable. A union must never be a shield from criminal conduct.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01: Workers clean graffiti off of an entrance sign to the AFL-CIO headquarters that was vandalized during overnight unrest, June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. Protests and riots continue across American following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, 44, was charged last Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Workers clean graffiti off of an entrance sign to the AFL-CIO headquarters that was vandalized during overnight unrest, June 1, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One organization that is undoubtedly watching the controversy inside the AFL-CIO closely is the Fraternal Order of Police, which is not affiliated with either the AFL-CIO or Change to Win federations and was one of only a few unions to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. 

A vote by the AFL-CIO Executive Council to expel IUPA could be a boon to the FOP, if other police union members walked out the door with them. With union density lower than at any time in the last 80 years, unions often feel that they cannot afford to lose any more members. 

Setting police unions fully apart from the rest of organized labor would, some advocates hope, heighten the already existing internal contradictions and hasten a reckoning. That reckoning, some unions worry and some conservative opponents of labor hope, would boomerang onto other public sector workers, who are disproportionately African American. And after a decade of nonstop attacks on public sector collective bargaining rights, union leadership is concerned about changes to police union collective bargaining resulting in weakening protections for all public sector workers, as has been proposed by numerous right-wing think tanks. 

Ben Sachs, a labor and industry professor at Harvard Law who recently launched a project to reform police union collective bargaining to end police abuses, understands the concerns of union leaders and others that a push to reform police union collective bargaining could endanger a broader subset of workers. 

We can’t allow changes to police collective bargaining to become a stalking horse for those with a political agenda to undermine other public sector unions.”

“It is absolutely critical that any reforms remain tightly focused on the actual problem here, which is police violence. Any changes to police collective bargaining law should apply only to collective bargaining practices that directly implicate police violence. We can’t allow changes to police collective bargaining to become a stalking horse for those with a political agenda to undermine other public sector unions,” Sachs said. “At the same time, this is an immediate and enormous crisis. That has to be dealt with in a robust way. If that means that being open to some changes to police collective bargaining laws, it’s incumbent on us to be open to that.”

Veena Dubal, a University of California, Hastings College of the Law professor who resigned from the Berkeley police oversight commission due to its toothlessness, argued that demands to defund or abolish the police reflected the tension of attempting to address the ways that police collective bargaining agreements protect violent cops without infringing on public sector collective bargaining rights.

“Rather than open the door to the de-unionization of public sector workers, a much better strategy is a social movement strategy,” which would include the AFL-CIO saying it didn’t want to be associated with cop unions, said Dubal. That strategy, Dubal argued, would recognize that “police aren’t workers even in the same way that firemen are workers. Police defend property. They have historically defended white property. We’re not in a place where that is going to change.”

The end goal, Dubal said, would be to “take the emphasis away from the unions and refocus on defunding and abolition of police departments. As labor movement activists we have to push back against racism and the institutionalization of racism amongst and our communities. That was the failure of labor in the 1960s. … We’re not going to achieve the racial equality and economic justice in the labor movement if we don’t continue to make these strides.”

Saladin Muhammad, a former organizer with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America and current co-coordinator of the Southern Workers Assembly, meanwhile believes the AFL-CIO should expel the IUPA unequivocally — and that mainstream unions should consider expulsion of their law enforcement units as well. “I believe if the Minnesota cops would have come out — not just one or two but hundreds of them — come out and condemned what happened to George Floyd, that might have been an important statement. But they didn’t. This blue wall of silence that exists as a part of police culture has stopped this kind of open challenge by police to police brutality.”

“Expelling the police is one question but it doesn’t stop them from functioning the way they function. But it is a step forward,” said Muhammad, who argued that the rank and file must also take action to address systemic racism.  

“Responding to these kinds of acts has to begin to be seen as an obligation of the working class and of trade unions.”

“As an African-American, this killing with impunity that exists really speaks to the question of whether the working class is going to unite on a multinational, multiracial basis around conditions that affect a section of the working class. Responding to these kinds of acts has to begin to be seen as an obligation of the working class and of trade unions,” said Muhammad.

Steven Pitts, a professor at the UC Berkeley Labor Center who has led racial justice discussions for many unions, argued that the behavior of cops is a bigger issue than the presence of their unions within the AFL-CIO. “What we need now is to stop cops from killing Black people. Sometimes symbolic steps can be useful. But the final marker in the sand is to restrain the power of the police to kill Black people. We need to identify the concrete policies and procedures that allow cops that we know have issues around race and brutality — it may be an issue of collective bargaining, arbitration, or disciplinary records — once we identify those things and then we make them a condition of further acceptance in the AFL-CIO. Expelling cop unions would then become a tool to change those policies and procedures that lead to brutality. If we can’t draw a direct line from expulsion to the elimination of bad practices, then I’d want to focus on the bad practices.”

Unions should also focus on empowering Black workers to fight against anti-Black racism. “How do you bring power to those that are powerless? How do you increase the power of Black workers, Asian workers, Latino workers and so forth? Otherwise we’re asking people, like the AFL-CIO leadership, who have good hearts but they will behave imperfectly if workers of color lack power in society,” Pitts said, noting that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka “makes a calculus to say things in one context and differently in another and our job is to change the context. That’s a matter of power.”

There are few historical examples of unions getting kicked out of the labor movement. The UE, which Muhammad was formerly an organizer with, was one of the communist-led unions expelled from the CIO. After its expulsion, over 90 percent of its 700,000 members were pressured and red-baited into joining more conservative unions, all of whom were much less progressive on racial justice issues.  

“I think that SEIU, AFSCME, and the Teamsters should consider expelling their cop locals,” said Muhammad. “There’s a real strong element of business unionism that is making some unions reluctant [to expel]. I haven’t really seen any of the major unions that have cops really struggle with the cops and … expel members of their union who have committed these vicious acts and killings.”

“Expelling a law enforcement unit from an international union would depend if there was a violation of the constitution,” Fletcher said. Indeed, that’s the argument the WGAE made in its resolution on expelling IUPA, which argued that “police unions are incompatible with the AFL-CIO’s stated goals: ‘to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms.’” The resolution went on: “the policies or ­activities of [the IUPA] are consistently directed ­toward the achievement of the program or purposes of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism and other forces that suppress individual liberties and freedom of association and oppose the basic principles of free and democratic trade unionism.”  

Fletcher said that if the AFL-CIO held a nationwide discussion, one of the results may be that the police unions could choose to leave, noting that the AFL-CIO completed a racial justice commission in 2017 in response to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 and 2015. The IUPA did not participate in it. “The AFL could look into law enforcement and part of it would be about race and one of the consequences is that the IUPA could decide to leave. There might be police units of AFL-CIO affiliates that would object to such a discussion. But there’s a big difference between them deciding to leave and them being thrown out.”

The conversation around police unions often centers around their collective bargaining agreements, which typically make it difficult to terminate an officer for misconduct. Police unions also have a stable of friendly arbitrators jointly approved by management and union who typically issue decisions that are much friendlier to officers than arbitrators in typical public sector collective bargaining. In states with public sector collective bargaining, such agreements are made possible by laws that are friendlier to police and fire unions than others, allowing them “interest arbitration” to settle contracts, a process far friendlier to unions than typical collective bargaining.

In major confrontations, police unions have already failed to show solidarity with other public sector unions.

Union leadership is concerned that efforts to reform the police collective bargaining process could backfire and endanger public sector labor rights more broadly. AFSCME President Lee Saunders, who is African American, spoke to those concerns in an op-ed in USA Today, where he wrote, “Just as it was wrong when racists went out of their way to exclude black people from unions, it is wrong to deny this freedom to police officers today.”

Conservatives, ranging from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to libertarian think tanks, have been making the argument that problems with police union collective bargaining justifies the elimination of public sector collective bargaining rights altogether, in violation of international labor law. 

In major confrontations, police unions have already failed to show solidarity with other public sector unions. In Wisconsin, where the notorious Act 10 revoking collective bargaining rights for public employees provoked mass demonstrations in 2011, GOP Gov. Scott Walker carved cops out of his assault, depriving teachers and other public workers of the political protection that could come from a broader coalition. The police unions did not stand with the other workers. 

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