The following is adapted from a talk given September 8th at a forum by the Rank-and-File Temple (RAFT) Caucus at Temple University on “Racial Capitalism.” RAFT is the rank-and-file caucus of TAUP (AFT local 4532), the union for faculty and other staff at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Our union leaders, though, usually tell us the opposite. Not only my own union’s leaders at Temple University, but also the leaders of the national AFT, and those of the AFL-CIO federation, want us to keep out of the fight against cops and the wider racial struggle. And those same leaders defend the fact that the police are part of our unions, protected and supported by the AFT and the AFL-CIO — despite the fact that police brutalize workers and oppressed people everywhere.
But that strategy — keeping union fights separate from the anti-racist movement — has only helped keep working and oppressed people weak. Real power means wider, deeper solidarity, and that means linking up our fights against bosses and against racism for a classwide struggle against the ruling class. In other words, today more than ever, we have to mobilize in our unions, from the bottom up, against the police and against the racist capitalist system they serve.
The Police Are Our Enemy
The police are no friends to the working class — despite some of our own union leaders calling them “workers.”
Capitalism has produced racism since its inception. White supremacy helped to justify the colonization of the Americas, the extermination of many of its native peoples, and the looting of the natural resources that helped jumpstart capitalism. And it was key to the enslaving of the workforce that picked cotton for the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Today, racism helps keep the working class and oppressed divided and terrorized — making some groups, like Black and Brown people, hyper-exploitable for the bosses’ profits.
Cops are a lynchpin in this racist system. The terror they inflict on Black and Brown people — like the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Walter Wallace, Jr. here in Philadelphia — aims to keep down a potentially powerful force of revolt inside the working class and oppressed. And police are the front lines of the mass incarceration of Black people that helps fuel massive profits.
But throughout their history, the police have also been the bosses’ primary source of “muscle” against strikers. Police have long attacked and killed strikers, making sure scabs can get through picket lines — all so that the bosses can keep turning a profit. For public school teachers in my own union, the AFT, cops terrorize Black and Brown children in school hallways, keep the “school-to-prison pipeline” flowing, and terrorize Black and Brown families.
At Temple University, where I am an adjunct, the campus police force— the biggest one in the country — is the spearhead of gentrification to harass the majority-Black neighborhood. Meanwhile, the bosses of the university (and the businesses that depend on it) gobble up the surrounding neighborhood.
In other words: the police exist only to protect the ruling class’s property and power. But to do this, the massive police forces of cities like Philadelphia and New York swallow up huge chunks of a city’s budget. In New York this year, police spending exceeded $10 billion. And yet Democrats in local governments like New York and Philadelphia constantly attack union teachers because of a lack of funds.
All of this means our fight for real power as workers has to take on the police and racism.
The Failure of Our Union Leaders
And yet many union leaders have been failing, again and again, to throw our unions’ weight behind the fight against the racist police. In fact, union heads keep insisting that our unions should be protecting the police.
During the uprising against the police last summer, the leaders of my own union local — TAUP at Temple — did little beyond releasing bland statements of support for protesting students. They refused to call for the defunding, let alone the abolishing, of either Temple’s massive police force or Philadelphia’s. And they sat on their hands instead of mobilizing the union’s members to join the protests happening right outside Temple’s door.
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In this, TAUP’s leaders were just following the lead of Randi Weingarten, the president of our parent union, the AFT, the eighth biggest union in the U.S. with about 800,000 members. The AFT, too, did little beyond putting out a tepid statement about equality. But that same statement made sure to defend the police as members of the working class that deserve protection inside our unions and union federations. In fact, the AFT itself is affiliated with at least one police union, the Keane Police Officers Association (AFT local 6246).
Leaders of the AFL-CIO — the nation’s largest union federation — also rejected all calls to defund or abolish the police and to kick cops out of our unions. When protesters in the anti-police uprising last summer vandalized the AFL-CIO headquarters, this should have been a wake-up call that large sections of the working class and oppressed are alienated from the union movement’s leaders. Instead, it led the late president of the federation, Richard Trumka, to double down, denouncing the protesters and then championing the right of police to be protected by the AFL-CIO.
In this way, the leaders in the AFT and the AFL-CIO want to keep union struggles separate from the wider fight for racial justice. Intead, their strategy is to stick to economic issues — about pay, hours, and conditions — and steer clear of building a wider class struggle.
One part of that strategy — and a key reason why leaders of the AFT and AFL-CIO refuse to join the anti-police and anti-racism movement — is their reliance on the Democratic Party. The idea seems to be this: by currying favor with Democratic politicians, unions can gain leverage to win on purely economic issues. And so union heads like Trumka and Weingarten help raise huge sums for the Democrats and help “get out the vote” for people like Biden.
Relying on Democrats, though, means shying away from more militant tactics like the strike for fear of upsetting the “allies” in the Democratic Party. But it also means relying on politicians like Biden who helped build the racist mass incarceration system, and who now totally reject the major demands of the struggle last summer, like defunding and abolishing the police. More than this, their strategy means relying on exactly the party that spearheaded the brutal repression of the anti-cop uprising last summer, since it was Democrats in Portland, Philadelphia, and New York that attacked protesters. No wonder, then, that leaders like Trumka and Weingarten refused to offer any real, concrete solidarity with the movement last year — organizing strikes, picket lines, and so on.
This union strategy — stick to “bread and butter” issues, avoid militant tactics, rely on Democrats — has been common sense among union leaders for decades. But it has been a miserable failure. It hasn’t stopped the steep decline of the union movement in recent years. The percentage of workers in unions has dwindled to just 10.8 percent, and unions have been losing power and influence under the attacks of the ruling class since the 1980s. For adjuncts like me, there hasn’t been a single instance, in the history of unionizing adjuncts, where a union has won a fundamental change to our working conditions, like a real and systematic pathway to tenure.
From Union Struggle to Class Struggle
But the last year has brought with it some hints of the power that comes from unions linking up with the wider anti-racist movement.
One was the role unions played in the uprising last summer. During that struggle, unions did not come close to playing the kind of role they could have played. But in Minneapolis, some union bus drivers refused to transport arrested protesters to jail. They did something similar a few months later, after the murder of Daunte Rice just outside of Minneapolis, with the support of their union, the MTU. And on Juneteenth, in the midst of the anti-cop uprising that summer, the ILWU, the dockworkers’ union, held a solidarity strike for one day up and down the West Coast.
These examples are isolated, but they point to the power of unions joined to racial struggle. That power does not come from asking Democrats for their blessing or help. It comes from working class and oppressed people taking matters into their own hands and acting for themselves, using their own weapons, like strikes alongside disruptive protests and marches.
Union membership is low, but unionized workers are standing at key chokepoints of the capitalist economy, from transportation and healthcare to manufacturing and education. This is a key reason the capitalist parties do not want the economic struggle and wider class struggle to be united. Had the solidarity actions spread — if more transportation union workers refused to help the police in other big cities, and if union rank-and-filers across the country refused work not just for a day, but until our demands were met — the power of the anti-police uprising would have been far stronger.
But more than this, reversing the losses of the union movement itself means moving past narrow union struggle to classwide struggle — not just with statements, but with real action.
For example, joining our union power with the struggle to abolish the police would mean attacking a key force of capitalism that breaks strikes and soaks up huge amounts of money that should be going to workers and the oppressed, for their own priorities. And it could be a means of building bridges between the struggle of union teachers and those of Black and Brown communities terrorized by the cops. In other words, linking unions to wider mass struggle could help the union struggle become more powerful, too.
That means building, inside our union, from the bottom up, a rank-and-file movement ready to join the struggle against racism concretely, in the streets, and to use our weapons as workers — like the strike — in solidarity with that struggle. That in turn means independence from, and a fight against, the Democratic Party that defends the police and crushes anti-police protest.
One concrete part of that wider fight is to follow the lead of SEIU Drop the Cops and push to kick cops out of our unions — out of the AFT, as this campaign states, and out of the AFL-CIO completely. Dropping the cops would be a central way to strip the police of the protection our unions — and our dues money — gives them, to make it easier to attack police funding and jail killer cops.
When our union leaders keep our unions separate from other struggles, like racial struggle, it only helps the bosses. Moving past their failed strategy means moving past narrow, economic union struggle for a wider, militant class struggle.
But that in turn means workers and the oppressed acting for ourselves — not relying on the Democrats, but organizing from below, challenging the bureaucratic leadership of our unions and of the non-profits and the social movements themselves, too. All that will also require new organizing bodies,, like mass assemblies, to connect the wider class struggle to itself. Unions are crucial, but they alone are not enough for real class struggle.
We can’t abolish the cops without abolishing the capitalism they serve. That will mean organizing ourselves, from the bottom up, inside and beyond our unions and movement organizations, not just for economic gains but for class struggle against the rulers. The union leaders who are in bed with the Democrats can’t help us. But kicking cops out of our unions, and building towards a wider class struggle, are steps in the right direction.