The Labor Movement Faces A Reckoning Over Police Unions

Law enforcement unions make up a small slice of the AFL-CIO, but progressive members are increasingly uncomfortable associating with them.
The protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd have put new attention on the power wielded by police unions.
The protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd have put new attention on the power wielded by police unions.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

Carmen Berkley spent four years directing the AFL-CIO’s civil rights department, trying to advance the cause of underrepresented communities at the country’s largest labor federation. Her tenure overlapped with seismic social justice events, including the protests that followed the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Berkley felt that the AFL-CIO often broached difficult conversations about race, but failed to follow through. With the country now engulfed in anger over police brutality, she believes the federation needs to cut its ties with police unions.

“It will take an extraordinary amount of bravery for the conversation to have action,” said Berkley, who is Black. “My hope is that Americans know that American trade labor unions are different from police associations. Police associations are a dangerous group that need to be defunded.”

The recent police killing of George Floyd has brought new scrutiny to the power of police unions. Their collective bargaining agreements often undermine transparency and accountability around shootings, delay investigations and protect bad cops with long histories of excessive force. Their political power with both Democratic and Republican officials has made them hard to tame.

Police unions have long occupied an uneasy place within the labor movement. Many otherwise fierce trade unionists believe they need to be curbed in the interest of public safety and social progress. That might include opening their bargaining sessions up to public oversight, or restricting what they can bargain over. Some go so far as to say they should be abolished completely.

The same debate took place in labor circles in the wake of the events in Ferguson. But now, with civil unrest that surpasses 2014, labor leaders will have a difficult time avoiding a basic question: Should there be a place for police unions within the labor movement?

A police officer fires rubber bullets at protesters during a demonstration next to the city of Miami Police Department on May 30. Anti-racist protests were held throughout the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police.
A police officer fires rubber bullets at protesters during a demonstration next to the city of Miami Police Department on May 30. Anti-racist protests were held throughout the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police.

In the case of the AFL-CIO, that question hovers over one of its affiliates, the International Union of Police Associations, which represents 100,000 workers. The Fraternal Order of Police, which is larger and better known, is not part of the federation. The AFL-CIO includes other unions that represent corrections officers and law enforcement personnel, though they are a minority of those unions’ overall members.

There does not appear to be a broad or coordinated effort within the AFL-CIO to expel the IUPA, or to force the union to embrace police reform as a condition of membership. At least not yet.

According to the AFL-CIO constitution, ejecting a member union would require an investigation and vote by its executive council, which includes the federation’s top officers and representatives from the 55 member unions. The federation has parted ways with individual unions before, however: both the Teamsters and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union were expelled decades ago over corruption charges. Others more recently disaffiliated by choice over strategic differences.

Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, suggested on a call with reporters about racial justice this week that he had little interest in a debate on whether to boot police unions. The answer “is not to disengage and condemn,” he said. And the reluctance goes well beyond Trumka. The Center for Public Integrity recently reached out to 10 major unions and labor groups to discuss police unions and found no takers.

In a statement, Trumka said the federation was committed to ending systemic racism, bringing about criminal justice reform and demanding “better practices from our nation’s police departments and officers.”

“Just yesterday, the AFL-CIO Committees on Civil and Human Rights and Legislation and Policy met in emergency session and began the process of engaging directly with police affiliates to encourage the structural change and internal accountability measures necessary to crack down on police brutality once and for all,” he said.

The debate over law enforcement unions is already escalating inside some of the federation’s affiliates. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, acknowledged that members of her own union have recently raised concerns about being part of a federation with law enforcement unions. She also said the subject was recently discussed on a call with other members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council.

“Everyone who works needs a union. That is the truth,” Nelson told HuffPost.

But she said there are expectations of any union in the federation, including those in law enforcement.

“I think we have to make it very clear for every union in the AFL-CIO that when we see outright violence and oppression against working people, we have to stand against it,” she said. “They have to be a part of the solution, or they shouldn’t be around. It’s that simple.”

On Friday, Nelson’s union adopted a formal “Black Lives Matter” resolution. It included the sort of criticism most unions have shied away from: “Many police and law enforcement unions across the country have refused common-sense steps to reform departments, address systemic bias in law enforcement and hold their own members accountable.”

Kim Kelly, an influential labor reporter, recently wrote in The New Republic that police unions should be eliminated, arguing it “wouldn’t make any sort of strategic sense for police-affiliated unions to try and make nice with the rest of the movement.” Kelly is a member of the Writers Guild of America-East, an AFL-CIO union, and sits on its council. Other members of the WGAE have publicly called on the federation to drive out the IUPA. (The WGAE represents HuffPost staffers.)

The issue of police brutality cuts to a core tension within the AFL-CIO. The most progressive members believe the federation needs to do everything it can as an agent for social change. Other, more conservative members insist it should focus its energy on basic workplace issues: improving the pay and benefits of members.

Those two aims are not mutually exclusive, of course, and they are often inextricably linked. But the friction between those two goals often surfaces when it comes to heated political issues like the Keystone Pipeline or immigration reform.

The AFL-CIO has a financial interest in the IUPA remaining a member, since unions pay per-capita taxes to the federation, although the IUPA is relatively small compared to other public-sector unions. Those who want the union to remain might make a philosophical argument as well: that the federation should keep the tent as broad as possible and not draw lines around who does or doesn’t belong, at a time when unions are fending off attacks on collective bargaining around the country. More than half of states and the entire public sector are now right-to-work.

There are reasons the IUPA might want to stay in the federation even if it didn’t feel welcome. The AFL-CIO functions as a powerful trade group for labor, lobbying on unions’ behalf and offering aid in battles with employers and legislators. Being an affiliate comes with another lesser-known but significant benefit: protection from “raids” ― that is, when one union tries to poach another union’s members. The AFL-CIO maintains a no-raiding rule among its affiliates.

A concerted push to expel police unions could make for messy and surprising schisms within the federation.

“The labor movement stands for working people, and working people don’t kill other working people.”

- Ana Avendaño, former member of an AFL-CIO race commission

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees carries the torch of the Memphis sanitation strikers, and has one of the country’s most powerful Black labor leaders as its president, Lee Saunders. AFSCME also includes a fair number of corrections officers. The American Federation of Government Employees is waging a bitter fight with the Trump administration over collective bargaining rights for government workers. It also represents Trump-supporting officers within Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Some in the public sector may be leery of ostracizing any union for government workers, even if they believe police unions need to be reined in. And the building trades unions tend to be more conservative than those in the service and public sectors. Although there are exceptions ― notably, the work of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in challenging immigration crackdowns ― members in those unions often bristle at the AFL-CIO’s use of time and resources toward progressive causes.

Ana Avendaño saw these internal tensions up close as part of an AFL-CIO race commission that convened after Ferguson. The commission held what she believed were meaningful hearings on structural racism. She thought there was strong internal support for those efforts, but there was also resistance from the IUPA and the building trades.

Avendaño said a showdown will become increasingly difficult for the federation to avoid.

“Kicking IUPA out would be largely symbolic. But it would be, I think, hugely symbolic,” she said. “It would really make a statement about what the federation and what the labor movement values, and doesn’t value.”

Whether police deserve collective bargaining rights, she noted, is a different question from whether they belong in the labor movement.

“The labor movement stands for working people, and working people don’t kill other working people,” she said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken out against police brutality and joined calls for reform.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken out against police brutality and joined calls for reform.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Avendaño said she saw Trumka as a pretty strong leader in the wake of Ferguson. At the time, he added his name to a letter sent to the White House from the late civil rights icon Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) calling for the creation of a commission to implement reforms and a police czar to oversee law enforcement.

Trumka’s signature infuriated the IUPA. The union’s president, Sam Cabral, sent Trumka a scathing two-page missive. Whatever problems the Black community is facing, Cabral wrote, police deserve none of the blame (the full letter can be read here).

“They are not responsible for the single parent families, the unemployment, the school dropout rate or its attendant unacceptable literacy rate among black youth,” he wrote. “They are not responsible for the gangs, black on black crime or the infant mortality rate.”

Cabral said the federation had no business weighing in on policing and the Black community. “You are using resources, time and credibility on an issue that has nothing what so ever to do with labor,” he wrote. The views laid out in Cummings’ letter “are not reflective of the blue collar American worker who builds homes, fights fires, installs telephones, or teaches students.”

The letter left plenty of staffers within the federation doubtful they could ever work constructively with the union on reform. The IUPA has since become a booster for Trump and last year endorsed his reelection bid. The union did not respond to interview requests left by HuffPost.

In 2014, Trumka delivered a gutsy speech to the Missouri AFL-CIO taking racism head-on. It included a memorable line ― “our brother killed our sister’s son” ― a reference to Darren Wilson, the police officer who was not charged in Michael Brown’s death, and Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, a grocery store worker and member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “If we in the labor movement truly want to act as a positive force for change around issues of racism and classism we have to acknowledge our own shortcomings,” Trumka said.

The speech was not what attendees were expecting from a burly, mustachioed white guy who came up through the United Mine Workers of America, said Amaya Smith, who worked at the AFL-CIO for nearly a decade, including as an adviser to Trumka. She now co-owns the Brown Beauty Co-Op, a D.C. beauty boutique devoted to women of color. Smith remembers complete silence ― and palpable awkwardness ― as Trumka spoke. She said she will always respect him for “delivering hard truths to people who needed to hear it.”

“When I was at the AFL-CIO, I was wildly optimistic we could be the place to have this really difficult conversation about what that means to work together to solve these problems,” Smith said.

But she never saw the serious discussion about law enforcement unions that she believes needs to happen. Still, even she is not sold on the idea of expelling the IUPA.

“Can you use their membership for accountability?” she wondered. “I don’t think they’d be receptive to the message, but I’m not sure folks have tried to have that internal conversation. … The AFL-CIO could use its platform.”

The anger over police brutality arrived at the AFL-CIO’s front door this week, quite literally. A crowd vandalized its Washington headquarters near the White House during protests on May 31, smashing windows to the lobby and defacing the building with phrases like “fuck the law” and “we matter.” The federation condemned the violence, calling it “disgraceful,” but supported peaceful protesters’ message, with Trumka reiterating support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s not easy to know the intentions of the vandals, and whether there was any more significance to the AFL-CIO being damaged than a nearby tea shop. But Berkley thought at least one person with a can of spray paint had made a deliberate target of the building. The photos from that night aren’t entirely clear, and the building has since been boarded up and decorated with “AFL-CIO supports Black Lives Matter” signs. But one tag appeared to say: “Those who remain silent are part of the problem.”

Clarification: This story originally stated that the bakers union re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO decades after being expelled. The full story is more complicated.

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