In June, the King County Labor Council voted to oust the Seattle Police Officers Guild from its ranks, saying the union was no longer welcomed as it had failed “to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large.”
Earlier that month, 11 Minneapolis labor unions and organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the symbolic center of the city’s labor movement, joined protesters’ calls for the resignation of police union president Bob Kroll.
And around the country, some unions and a growing chorus of rank-and-file members have called on the national AFL-CIO to expel the International Union of Police Associations.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, most labor leaders are standing by the police.
Although many issued statements decrying systemic racism and expressing their outrage at the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, most local leaders bristled at the suggestion that police unions don’t belong in the labor movement. Echoing the beliefs of top national labor officials, they said that these unions need to be part of the solution and that kicking them out of the labor movement won’t fix problems with policing.
They were hesitant in interviews to back proposed police accountability measures, much less “defund the police” — even as their own members take to the streets, sharing stories of experiences with police violence and calling for the city to invest in services such as libraries and schools instead of policing.
Labor, state and local leaders agreed, has a role to play in police reform.
But what role? And at what cost?
The answers to these questions — facing unions across the U.S. — reveal rifts in a community often understood as a monolith. These are divides that could make or break proposed police reforms, as labor has proven to be a powerful force in city and state politics — that is, when unions are aligned. And observers say labor’s response to this moment will shape the future of the labor movement as a whole.
Low-wage workers, immigrants, and people of color are the future of the labor movement, said Eric Rosso, who runs a watchdog organization that monitors anti-union groups. They’re often going to be the ones experiencing police violence firsthand.
“If we’re going to build a labor movement that’s going to lift all of us,” Rosso said, the role of police unions in labor “is something that has to be addressed.”
‘They’re an island’
Police unions such as Philly’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 have long had a tenuous relationship with the rest of labor.
The FOP is not a dues-paying member of the Philly AFL-CIO — “Whether they would join or not, I don’t know because they’re strong enough on their own,” said Philly AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding. Public sector union leaders, such as Bob Coyle, AFSCME District Council 47 Local 2187 president, say that “uniformed” workers have always won better contracts than other city workers. And an early function of the police was to break strikes by other unions.
“I always considered police unions to be little more than organized scabs,” said Jed Dodd, national vice president of BMWED-Teamsters, a rail workers union.
The Pennsylvania FOP has used its clout to fight for other unions, as in 2017 when it declined to be carved out of an anti-union “Paycheck Protection” bill that ultimately did not pass. But in Philly, observers say the FOP sees itself as apart from the local labor movement.
“They’re an island,” said Tony Wigglesworth, who runs the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee and serves on the executive board of the AFL-CIO.
Still, in interviews with more than a dozen local labor leaders, several aligned themselves with the FOP.
Yes, there were problems with individual police officers, they said, but that was on management. Governments had not done a good enough job bringing disciplinary cases against officers, they said. The union was merely fulfilling its legal duty by defending its members.
“You can’t blame the system for fighting for somebody,” Eiding said.
A few grappled with the nuances of a union’s obligation to represent all its members.
“As a labor union, you always want to make sure your members get a fair shake,” said Richard Hooker, leader of the UPS workers Teamsters Local 623. “But in situations like this, what’s a fair shake? ... If I see one of my members commit murder on TV, then I can’t defend murder. As a leader, I can’t defend that.”
Many said they could not support any police reform measures that would undermine collective bargaining, such as proposed changes to Act 111, the state statute that governs how police and firefighters bargain contracts. With anti-union organizations ready to jump at the chance to bust public-sector unions — as they did with the Janus Supreme Court case, which sought to hamper union operations by making member fees optional — it’s too dangerous to go down that road, they said.
“The right wing is saying, ‘Man, I can take advantage and undermine people’s rights,‘” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of PA AFL-CIO.
32BJ SEIU, whose membership is majority Black and brown, was one of the few unions to address the FOP’s role in police violence.
“As a labor union we know best that union rights are already under attack ... yet it is impossible to ignore the reality of how police unions have helped officers escape disciplinary action when they have engaged in misconduct or criminal behavior,” 32BJ SEIU president Kyle Bragg said in a statement.
32BJ, which has clashed in the past with other unions over legislation in Harrisburg, said it supports a proposal from State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Phila.) to change police disciplinary proceedings through Act 111.
Several Philly labor groups declined to comment for this article, including nurses union PASNAP; Unite Here, a union that represents low-wage Black and immigrant workers; and the Philadelphia Building Trades Council, a politically powerful coalition of trade unions led by electricians union IBEW Local 98 head John Dougherty. The FOP Lodge 5 also declined to comment.
Union family ties to police
Why are police unions such a sticky subject for labor leaders?
For one, unions have historically built power through solidarity. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the union adage goes, and many understand it as never calling out your own, especially when labor is already under attack.
Some unions represent workers engaged in a form of policing, such as correctional officers and TSA screeners. Civilian police department workers are one of the biggest units of DC 47 Local 2187, which is why president Coyle says he has to be “extremely careful” when dealing with issues of police reform because any changes would affect his members.
And many Philly unions represent workers whose spouses, parents, or children are police officers. For those labor leaders, to take a hard-line stance on police reform — without internal discussion — would be to risk losing their next election.
After food and commercial workers union UFCW Local 1776 put out a statement about Floyd, some members — those that have family in the force — reached out to president Wendell Young IV. They wanted to know where he stood on police.
“We have to support police,” said Young, president of Local 1776, “and I do. And our union does.”
A rank and file uprising?
Out of more than a dozen surveyed, just one Philadelphia local said it had supported calls to defund the police and to expel police unions from the labor movement: AFT Local 2026, representing 1,300 faculty and staff at the Community College of Philadelphia.
“We don’t see [the police] as serving and protecting working people,” union co-president Junior Brainard said. “They’re serving and protecting the 1%.”
Those who did not reject these calls outright said they first had to discuss the issues with their members.
And many of those members, a new generation of labor activists, are agitating for change: They’re speaking at defund the police protests, organizing across unions as Labor United for Justice for George Floyd, proposing internal resolutions that call for funding city services, not the police.
It speaks to a vision of a labor movement that has, as BMWED-Teamsters Local 3012 president Keon Liberato put it, a class struggle culture — where unions are not just service providers who deliver higher wages and better benefits or more work for individual members, but also fight for the rights of all working people, especially those who are most oppressed.
“We understand that the boss isn’t just the employer at the workplace,” Liberato said. “There’s a collective boss.”