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Cop “Unions”: Their Real Function and Role

Police are not workers; they are the armed force of the bosses and have no place in the labor movement.

Scott Cooper

June 13, 2020
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Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

In September 1919, a strike erupted in Boston that rocked the city. Demanding recognition of their union and improvements in wages and working conditions, the strikers — affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) — were denounced as Bolsheviks and “agents of Lenin.” There was tremendous civil unrest in the city, and the Massachusetts State Guard was called out to restore order — an effort that involved shooting and killing nine strikers. 

The AFL thought all this looked bad for labor and called on the strikers to return to work. But they did not, and after four days the bosses brought in 1,500 permanent replacement workers — paying the scabs higher wages — and fired every one of the strikers.

The strikers were Boston police officers. Just a few months earlier, the AFL had begun to accept police organizations into its membership, and by the time of the Boston strike had chartered police unions in 37 cities. City officials in many of them had protested — they didn’t want “public” workers, including police, firefighters, and teachers — in unions.

The Boston strike indeed was a setback for labor, and the AFL didn’t try to organize police unions for another two decades. It would have been better had it never taken up the effort again.

The Function of Police

The AFL’s initial mistake in 1919 was to see police as ordinary workers who, like other workers, are wage slaves forced to sell their labor power to the capitalists in order to survive. By this logic, police “workers” striking for better pay and working conditions are as much a part of the working class as the steelworkers and miners and railworkers and loggers of the time who were also organizing unions. The police, however, are not workers — and their role in class society is always on the side of the bosses. 

The function of those groups of workers in steel, rail, and so on is markedly different than those who sell their labor power to a police department. As Friedrich Engels wrote, capitalism has “conflicting economic interests” and “irreconcilable antagonisms” with the working class, and so to “moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’” it needs “a power, apparently standing above society … to moderate the conflict” — namely, the state.

Lenin expounded on this in The State and Revolution, explaining, “Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.”

As Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote, “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The police are the first line of defense of that state, which is predicated on the system of private ownership of the means of production through which the capitalists exploit workers and enrich themselves. They exist specifically to maintain capitalist property relations and the state. That is why they are used to break strikes. That is why they are given free reign to attack dissenters violently. That is why they are militarized. That is why they are not held to account, even when they clearly frame people and lie in court.

If there is any doubt, consider that the earliest police forces of the sort we know today were established in the period from roughly 1825 to 1855 in England and the United States in response to three primary phenomena — none of which had anything to do with “crimes” per se. They were created in England because large masses of workers were striking collectively against capitalist exploitation — which represented a direct assault on those “conflicting economic interests” about which Engels wrote. They were created in the U.S. South because of fear of slave insurrections, and to make it a publicly funded function to help hunt down runaway slaves who might spark those rebellions. They were created in the U.S. North to control defiant crowds in the teeming cities that would, from time to time, rise up to challenge their miserable working and living conditions — but also to control uprisings by Black New Yorkers, later joined by white abolitionists, aimed at preventing former slaves from being snatched up and shipped back to their southern masters.

In a nutshell, the police were originally formed to hunt down slaves, break strikes, and disrupt protests. 

From the beginning, it is clear that police are not members of the working class — nor are any of the other “special bodies of armed men” that patrol the borders or work as prison guards. Workers toil each day to reproduce themselves, to keep themselves alive another day so they can return to their wage slavery and reproduce themselves again. Cops “toil” every day on behalf of the reproduction of capitalist property relations. They are an enemy of the working class. Their unions are not trade unions and have no place in the labor movement.

And racism is baked into their work from the get-go.

The Role of Police Unions

As John Fund wrote at the end of May, “Maybe it’s finally time to consider the role that police unions play in perpetuating police brutality.” Citing their “vast political power,” he continued, “And make no mistake, that power is often used to cover up and deflect changes of police conduct.”

You would be excused for not recognizing John Fund. A former longtime member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, he is now a national-affairs columnist for National Review, the most influential conservative magazine in America (founded in 1955 by William F. Buckley). His article reflects a growing rift in the U.S. ruling class, which needs to keep its “special bodies of armed men” functioning but fears the social revolt that has been sparked by the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis cops. Fund speaks for a growing number of capitalists and the bourgeois politicians they own who are looking for a way out.

Katherine Bies, then a law student at Stanford University, wrote a detailed study of police unions and how they protect their members through the political power they have built up since the 1970s.1Katherine J. Bies, “Let the Sunshine In: Illuminating the Powerful Role Police Unions Play in Shielding Officer Misconduct,” Stanford Law & Policy Review 28 (2017): 109. Reading her piece, it is difficult not to hear echoes of how the National Rifle Association has bought so many members of Congress.

Police unions have established highly developed political machinery that exerts significant political and financial pressure on all three branches of government. … The power of police unions over policymakers in the criminal justice context distorts the political process and generates political outcomes that undermine the democratic values of transparency and accountability.

Put another way, it’s a real conundrum for the rulers: In essence, their politicians have been bought by a group they created and rely on to protect their exploitative system, and yet that group has gotten out of control and threatens to spark the fire that could bring that very system down.

Fund wrote that cop unions perpetuate police brutality. How so? Like genuine unions, their mandate is to protect their members’ interests. Unlike genuine unions they do so “even in cases when those interests may be counter to democratic norms and values,” as Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post. Their contracts typically include a tangled web of mechanisms designed to make it more difficult to weed out cops who harass, beat, and even kill people while on the job. These include time limits on investigations, expungement of misconduct records, and mechanisms allowing officers to challenge disciplinary findings.” 

Allowing cops to hide behind the kinds of protections that real workers would secure through collective bargaining actually increases the likelihood of police misconduct. University of Chicago law school researchers concluded that “collective bargaining rights led to a substantial increase in violent incidents of misconduct” in Florida sheriffs’ offices.2Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams, and John Rappaport, “Collective Bargaining Rights and Police Misconduct: Evidence from Florida,” University of Chicago Public Law Working Paper No. 655, August 27, 2019. And even the U.S. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that unionized police forces get more complaints than those without these “union” protections, and that the rate of complaints being “found to have merit” is half that of non-union cop agencies.

As Ingraham wrote, “In effect, officers in unionized police forces are more likely to be the subjects of an excessive-force complaint, but more likely to beat the allegations in disciplinary hearings.”

Protecting abusive and murderous cops is a full-time industry for the Fraternal Order of Police, the Police Benevolent Association, and the International Union of Police Association (IUAP) that help local police unions win these contracts. They develop lengthy appeals processes that wear down complainants and municipal governments, give cops some control over third-party arbitrators, and leads to nearly half of the cops fired for misconduct being rehired. And those who don’t often get hired in other cities. There are rules that ban civilian oversight, indemnify cops from civil suits, make anonymity illegal from complainants who then risk retaliation, limit interrogations of cops and the length of internal investigations, and mandate that disciplinary records be destroyed. As one researcher wrote in a Duke Law Journal study, “overall, 156 of the 178 police union contracts examined in this study — around 88 percent — contained at least one provision that could thwart legitimate disciplinary actions against officers engaged in misconduct.”3Stephen Rushin, “Police Union Contracts,” Duke Law Journal 66 (2016): 1191. Other research suggests that police unionization directly increases the number of police killings of “civilians” each year — the overwhelming majority of whom are Black and brown. Cop unions exist to shield murderers in their ranks.

Space does not allow for the long litany of the cop union leaders who have come out in the aftermath of the murder  of George Floyd to reveal even more how vile and dangerous they are to everyone, and what cops really stand for. Two examples will suffice. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, defended the killers, called George Floyd a “violent criminal,” and characterized protests as a “terrorist movement.” He also denounced protesters as “thugs” and insisted that murdering members of the police force be treated “fairly” and “with respect.” 

On June 9, Mike O’Meara, president of the N.Y. State Police Benevolent Association, stood before a bank of microphones and complained, “I read in the papers all week that in the Black community, mothers are worried about their children getting home from school without being killed by a cop.” And he screamed his demand: “Stop treating us like animals and thugs, and start treating us with some respect!” — leaving out the “or else” that Black people know so well. 

All this begs the question of why cop “unions” are considered part of organized labor and why we should continue to have police at all.

Cop “Unions” Out of the Labor Movement

It was never okay for local labor councils and the AFL-CIO nationally to welcome cop “unions” into the broader labor movement. Even with all the shortcomings of the union bureaucracy, the union movement is predicated on solidarity. How could welcoming a force founded to break strikes be justified?

Today, allowing cop “unions” in the broader labor movement is untenable. Allowing them to hide behind others as “union brothers and sisters” is an obstacle to the revolutionary change being demanded in the streets and an insult to workers everywhere. Union bodies that don’t expel these phony “unions” are complicit in maintaining the system that not only leads to killings like those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, but that was constructed to carry out those murders.

Some union bodies have begun to take those steps. The King County Labor Coalition, Seattle’s confederation of local unions, has given Seattle cops until June 17 to declare that “Black Lives Matter” and deal with its “racism problem” — or a vote on expelling their “union” will be taken. The executive board of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA on June 5 issued a resolution arguing that police unions that don’t address racism within their ranks be “removed from the Labor movement.” The Writers Guild of America, East — which organizes TV writers and digital journalists — called on the AFL-CIO to remove the IUPA from the federation, writing:

As long as police unions continue to wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability, no one is safe. Therefore we believe that police unions do not belong in our labor coalition. 

Unfortunately, these actions do not go far enough. To urge police “unions” to denounce their racism is absurd.  The police departments are founded on racism. Yes, we should drive their “unions” out of the labor movement, but if we want to end their racism then we will have to end the cops. Period.


1 Katherine J. Bies, “Let the Sunshine In: Illuminating the Powerful Role Police Unions Play in Shielding Officer Misconduct,” Stanford Law & Policy Review 28 (2017): 109.
2 Dhammika Dharmapala, Richard H. McAdams, and John Rappaport, “Collective Bargaining Rights and Police Misconduct: Evidence from Florida,” University of Chicago Public Law Working Paper No. 655, August 27, 2019.
3 Stephen Rushin, “Police Union Contracts,” Duke Law Journal 66 (2016): 1191.
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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.

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