Labor leaders under pressure to oust police unions
Labor leaders are coming under pressure from within their own ranks to sever ties with law enforcement groups amid the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustices.
The effort to oust police unions took shape this week when a major writer’s union passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to expel the International Union of Police Associations.
The request by the Writers Guild of America, East, was rebuffed, with the AFL-CIO saying “police officers, and everyone who works for a living, have the right to collective bargaining,” and that it was preferable to engage police unions rather than isolate them.
But it’s unlikely to be the last attempt to separate police unions from the broader labor movement.
“There’s a debate that’s going on within labor and we’re trying to support the folks within labor that understand that police unions are not trying to protect the humanity and dignity of all people,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color Of Change.
The civil rights group, which worked with the Writers Guild on its resolution, said it was in talks with at least five other AFL-CIO affiliated groups to press for the removal of police unions.
For decades, labor has largely been a bastion of support for Democrats. So has the African American community. But that dynamic is now being tested.
At a Thursday hearing on police reform, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, witnesses repeatedly pointed to the role of police unions as an obstacle to passing significant reforms.
“Police unions are powerful forces shaping government, lobbying for more and more resources and less and less oversight and accountability. This must end, and we need you to be active participants in dismantling what does not serve us,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza said at the hearing.
Activists point to strong union contracts that have shielded rogue cops from punishment, prevented abusive officers from losing their jobs after violent incidents and helped build what critics call a “culture of impunity” among police.
“Our progress, our work, has not managed to end the entrenched warrior culture of immunity that has a Praetorian Guard in the unions, the police unions,” said Connie Rice, who co-founded the Advancement Project, a racial justice advocacy group.
Rice argued that police unions were partly responsible for putting qualified immunity “on steroids.”
The legal doctrine can protect officers from civil lawsuits.
“Qualified immunity says that public servants ought to be able to do their jobs without being able to get pummeled with lawsuits that are frivolous,” Rice said. “What has happened is both the police union infrastructure through the police bill of rights and the courts have made it an ironclad shield that allows murder to be committed almost with impunity.”
The tension between supporting traditional labor rights and calls to weaken police unions has put congressional Democrats in a tough spot.
So far, lawmakers have declined to press the issue legislatively.
House Democrats avoided tackling police unions head-on in the Justice and Police Act, the sweeping police reform legislation that would ban chokeholds and create a binding national standard for police use of force.
Democratic leadership let the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Judiciary Committee take the reins on crafting much of the bill.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg TV on Thursday she had spoken to a police union that was supportive of the legislation, while adding that “some of the union officials have been very, shall we say, more protective than they need to be of bad conduct,” she said, without naming any groups. “But we have to make those distinctions.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police group, issued a statement after the legislation was released saying, “We were heartened to see that there were provisions in the bill that we believe, after good faith discussions, will create a law that will have a positive impact on law enforcement and policing in our country.”
The International Union of Police Associations, which endorsed President Trump’s reelection bid last year, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a CBC member and former teachers union member, said she doesn’t think the Democrats’ new reform package waters down the power of police unions.
“I’m a union advocate. So, I know that the job of the union is to support the people who are members of their union — that’s the teachers, the firefighters, the police. And I’m sensitive. I’m a union lady. I’m a teacher by trade. I’m a family or teachers, and so we have a different perspective of unions,” Wilson told The Hill.
Making police officers more accountable, “that’s not weakening unions. It just makes them obey whatever policies are in place.”
The fight over police union reforms isn’t just happening in Congress.
In Seattle, a labor coalition has threatened to oust the police union if it didn’t change its contract to allow for greater accountability.
“Not only have we witnessed labor at large support reforming policing but we’ve seen them leading on holding police unions accountable at this critical moment in our communities and across the country,” said Chris Evan, a spokesman for Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus whose district includes King County.
“It’s especially important because the King County Labor Council is also saying that if [the Seattle Police Officers Guild] fails to take the steps outlined and implement new reforms to address institutional racism and unconstitutional policing, they will be expelled from the council and lose their protections,” he added.
For some reform proponents, pressure from within the labor movement is a better way to take on police unions, especially if the other option is legislation.
Roberts, from Color Of Change, warned that laws targeting police unions could have the unintended consequence of harming other labor groups.
“That would just invite more of a confrontation with the labor unions, and we really need to focus on an agenda that is about structural change and accountability,” he said.
Scott Wong contributed to this report.