Photo: Left Voice
Last week, Local 2865 of the United Auto Workers passed a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations. Local 2865 represents around 13,000 graduate students employed by the University of California, largely as tutors, readers, and teaching assistants. In its statement, “Denouncing Police Unions” , the union local argues that the AFL-CIO’s inclusion of police unions contradicts its “official mission” and that “police unions fail to meet the criteria of a union or a valid part of the labor movement.”
While there have been some examples of organized labor taking a stand against police brutality, such as the longshoremen’s shutdown of the Port of Oakland on May Day to protest police terror, the call for the police union’s disafilliation is an unprecedented move on the part of a labor union local, no doubt stemming from public rage against racist policing and anti-black violence. Systemic, racist policing has become the focus of national attention as mobilizations and rebellions have swept the United States, beginning with Trayvon Martin’s murder in February 2012, escalating when police gunned down Michael Brown in August 2014, and more recently when cops ended Freddie Gray’s life and Baltimore’s youth took to the streets.
Amid the growing awareness of the state-sanctioned murder of black and brown people, a debate continues to boil, with some “leftists” and “progressives” contending that police collectively form a part of the working class. They claim that the police may one day shed their usual role as strikebreakers, repressors, and racist murderers, and instead join the working class to fight against their capitalist masters. Some have taken the example of soldiers’ revolts during the Vietnam War, when working-class troops deserted, refused orders, organized major mutinies, and committed countless acts of insubordination. These historical examples have been distorted to argue that a similar revolt may occur within police ranks today. The prospect of the police abandoning their assigned role to maintain capitalism may be conceivable in a revolutionary context in which the legal and state apparatuses lay fallow and discredited, when class struggle has taken the form of civil war, and mutual attacks are open and unfettered. When postulated outside of a revolutionary context, however, this is an erroneous, fantastical notion.
Currently, the state has an unmistakable monopoly on the legal and “legitimate” use of force, which is where the police come in. There is a general consensus that the labor movement and revolutionary organizations have been in retreat for decades. In the absence of revolutionary conditions, in which the capitalist class faces a real political crisis, the repressive forces of the state remain reactionary protectors of the system. “The police force,” states Local 2865, “Exists solely to uphold the status quo”
Don’t be Fooled: Police Unions Organize as Police, not as Workers *
The debate becomes further muddled when considering “police unions” that pretend to protect the rights and conditions of police as “wage-laborers,” as if separately from their role as enemies of the working class. Since professionalized policing first emerged in the 1820s, its primary role has been to control the “dangerous classes”: break up labor strikes and work stoppages, arrest social and political “deviants,” etc. Radicals, Blacks, immigrants, LGBT people, the poor, homeless, and people with disabilities are constant targets. Today’s police unions, particularly after organized protest against police repression during the civil rights and Black Power movement, consistently oppose community review boards and mechanisms for police accountability. The same goes for corrections officers and border patrol.
After the grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who choked and killed Eric Garner, New York City police union president Patrick Lynch blamed the victims of police violence, warning that “you cannot resist arrest.” During the 2011 Occupy movement, government officials made a coordinated effort to destroy the encampments and shut down protests. The national guard and police swooped in, no holds barred: tear gas, violent arrests, billy clubbing, acts of sexual assault, and exorbitant legal fines and criminal charges. If there was any doubt about the police’s dutiful marriage to the state in exterminating resistance to the 1%, they should be long gone now.
Lastly, the police and repressive forces have not faced the same threat of austerity measures that other state employees are subject to. Despite the cuts to social services, government layoffs, and the privatization of the public sector and public assets, the government has sheltered the police and other repressive forces from austerity measures. On the contrary, we are witnessing an expansion of detention centers on the federal, state, and local level. In May, Maryland State Governor Larry Hogan won approval for a new $30 million youth jail, while the public school system faces a $60 million “deficit” in large part due to Governor Hogan’s unscrupulous $35 million budget cuts
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, environmental and prisoners’ rights organizations are fighting against the plan to build a maximum-security prison , which will destroy over 700 acres of forests, waterways, and habitat for endangered wildlife and the surrounding population.
Workers must take up the fight against racism
Local 2865’s resolution is a positive step, and correct in stating that police unionization “allows police to masquerade as members of the working-class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, [and] oppression.” The call for disaffiliation offers a way in which workers can take up the fight against police brutality at their jobs, and put pressure on their unions to sign on to this demand.
All workers should push their unions to not only call for the expulsion of the police, but to join and mobilize for demonstrations against racist police brutality, as Unite Here Local 7 did for weeks in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death, and as the ILWU did in the aforementioned port shutdown. Beyond any single tactic, co-signature, or gesture of support, it is fundamental for labor unions and working-class organizations to build the forces to fight racism and end black and brown oppression.
* Modified from Kristian Williams’ Our Enemies in Blue, also quoted here