The Fight to Kick Cops Out of Unions Is a Fight Against the Union Bureaucracy

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Though there is a growing movement from rank-and-file members to disaffiliate cops from unions, the leaders of the U.S.’s largest unions defend cops’ right to organize alongside workers. Both the union bureaucracy and cop “unions” are means by which the capitalist state maintains control over working class organizations. Mobilizing the power of the working class against police terror and capitalist exploitation requires confronting these two enemies of the working class.

Patrick Lynch is the President of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

In the eight minutes and 46 seconds that Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, a long-standing truth became undeniable: that the police exist to protect not people but private property, and that they do this at the expense of working people, particularly Black and Brown folks and other marginalized identities. The police are not subject to the same “justice” they inflict on working people at gunpoint or with a knee on the neck. Floyd’s death, and the deaths of those before and after him, threw the capitalist state into the spotlight, laying bare its contradictions for the working class and oppressed to see.

Against a backdrop of pandemic and economic crisis, the anti-racist movement that Floyd’s death sparked, a movement led by a vanguard of radicalized Black youth, has drawn broad sectors into the streets day after day to face off against this state. In the last four months, the biggest protest movement in the United States’ history has ripped back the layers of racism and exploitation wrapped around capitalism’s rotten core.

One of the contradictions revealed by the movement is the role that police unions play in enabling cops to beat, harass, and kill with impunity. The labor movement’s efforts to expose the vital work that police unions do to protect the guard dogs of capital have implicated the leaderships of the country’s largest unions, showing the part that the union bureaucracy plays in converting one of the most powerful weapons of the working class into a tool of capitalist subjugation.

Police, Cop Unions, and Class Antagonisms

If the police exist in capitalist society to protect social, political, and economic relations in favor of the ruling class — those who have a monopoly on wealth, property, power, and violence — then cop unions exist to protect police in this role as the armed wing of the capitalist state.

As Lenin put it in The State and Revolution, “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.” In our own society, the capitalist state in its various forms emerged from the conflicting interests between those who own both the things we need to survive and what we need to produce them, and those of us who produce those things and are forced to sell our labor to gain access to them. By their very nature, these class differences cannot be resolved: the ruling class maintains its place in society through the systematic exploitation and immiseration of the working class along multiple lines.

The state — made up of government, laws, the bureaucracy, the army, the police, and various other institutions — enforces these class differences. As Lenin continues, “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order,’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between the classes.” In other words, the state mediates the irreconcilable antagonisms that exist between classes by combining both concession and repression. The police exist to carry out the latter.

In the United States, this repression takes on a particularly racist character. Modern-day police departments emerged from the process of industrialization and later the abolition of slavery, which required a separate, systematized force of armed guards to protect private property and keep the working class in line. In the South, slave patrols evolved into full-time police forces to enforce Black Codes and keep Black people subject to incredible exploitation at the hands of bosses even after the formal bonds of slavery were broken. From its inception, policing has existed to guard the interests of the bourgeoisie, enforcing the antagonisms engendered by capitalism. It does so by protecting private property (criminalizing theft and trespassing) and by dividing the working class along racial lines (by disproportionately and systematically policing Black and Brown people).

In carrying out this role, the police exist as an entity “above” society, an entity that requires special methods and authority to impose order on society where there are none. Consequently, as Lenin explains, quoting Engels, “Special laws are enacted proclaiming the sanctity and immunity of the officials.” This ranges from qualified immunity, which ensures that police are not subject to the same laws as the rest of society, to the emergence of police unions in the late 19th century.

Cop unions developed as a way of normalizing and formalizing the function of police in society as the guard dogs of capital against the working class. Their mandate is to make sure that the police can do their job without facing legal or economic repercussions. Cop contracts are negotiated with this guiding principle in mind, ensuring ample protections and funds for cops who come under scrutiny. For example, many cop contracts give cops the ability to appeal complaints — including instances of brutality — at multiple levels with union-appointed arbitrators. This allows the union disproportionate control over the grievance process, ensuring that it resolves in favor of cops who are then put back onto the streets to harass working people. In fact, cops who are organized in unions have more complaints issued against them than cops who do not organize in unions, and they are far less likely to see those complaints sustained.

Further, police unions fundraise for cop-friendly politicians who in turn refuse to prosecute killer cops or pursue cases of police brutality, and who protect the interests of the cops at the highest levels of the U.S. government. For example. “Top Cop” Kamala Harris was endorsed by San Francisco’s police union in her campaign for district attorney in 2003; during her tenure as DA she routinely refused to intervene in police brutality cases. The International Union of Police Associations, which organizes in the federation, endorsed Donald Trump’s reelection campaign in late 2019, citing his support for increased police funding and other pro-cop reforms. And last month, in the middle of the uprising against police brutality, the NYPD’s union announced its wholehearted endorsement of Trump, saying: “We’re fighting for our lives out there. … We need your strong voice across the country. … You’ve earned this endorsement. [We’re] proud to give it.” These endorsements, along with the millions of dollars in campaign donations and lobbying efforts to push pro-cop legislation in Congress, allow cop unions to prevent even the most milquetoast attempts at police reform. Cop unions make what little accountability the justice system pretends to enforce impossible to pursue, and they actively work against any attempt within the labor movement to organize against police violence.

Although most cops organize in independent organizations, cop unions represent a small but influential minority in the country’s largest unions, organizing alongside the same workers they harass and arrest. They represent a constant rightward pressure within the labor movement that union leaderships have proved time and time again unwilling to challenge, against the interests and efforts of rank-and-file union members.

In this way, police unions equip the cops with privileges that the working class does not and cannot share. Though cops may organize in the same organizations as janitors, teachers, and nurses, only police unions can spend union money to prevent their members from going to jail for murder or assault. This stems not from police union staffers’ particular organizing prowess, but from the function that the police perform in capitalist society. Capitalism needs the police to function — to protect and serve the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Police unions allow them to carry out this task with the consent of the working class, erasing class lines and blunting one of the most important weapons of the working class in favor of the bourgeois state.

Cops in Unions and the Extension of the State

Though police in the United States have developed their own organizations to protect their interests since the late 19th century, their entry and participation in the wider labor movement is a more recent development. For example, the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) entered the AFL-CIO only in 1979; the International Brotherhood of Police Officers became an affiliate of SEIU only in 1982.

This is part of a larger process of a bureaucratization and “statization” of the organizations of the working class that began in the early 20th century and was revitalized once again with the advent of the neoliberal era and the retreat of the labor movement in the second half of the 20th century. Along with the vast expansion of the union bureaucracy and its direct ties to the state, the organization of cops within unions of workers is one more avenue through which the state encroaches on the terrain of the working class and gains wider influence and power, restricting the ability of working class movements to maneuver and organize. It opens a space for the state to use the labor movement to act in its own interests out in the open, hand in hand with union leaderships.

In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci described this process as an “extension” of the state beyond the bounds of the “apparatus” of government and its institutions into broader sections of civil society, including organizations that are organic to the working class, like unions. As Matías Maiello and Emilio Albamonte explain in Socialist Strategy and Military Art, “The powerful emergence of the workers’ movement with its organizations in the 20th century, and especially the triumph of the October Revolution, transformed the political structures of domination of the bourgeoisie with respect to the previous model of the ‘Liberal state.’” In other words, the expansion of the state was a reaction to the massive proliferation of workers’ organizations and the labor movement in the 20th century; this is most clearly manifested in the bureaucratization and nationalization of unions.

As Maiello and Albamonte go on to explain, a similar process took place in the latter half of the 20th century. The development of capitalism in the neoliberal era and in the wake of the degeneration of the workers’ states led to both the further expansion and division of the working class, which resulted in the further corruption or statization of workers’ organizations into “direct agents of the neoliberal ‘counter-reforms’” and the evolution of new forms of bureaucratization, including the emergence of cop unions and later their incursion into larger federations of workers. This marked a huge leap forward in the expansion of the state into the workers’ movement.

The organization of cops in unions paves the way for the police to repress the working class with the consent of labor leaders. Characterizing cops as workers, it erases the lines between the allies of the working class and its enemies. But more than that, the organization of cops in unions is a direct intrusion by the state into one of the most strategically important tools that the working class has to organize and fight for its interests against the bosses, the state, and capitalism itself. It artificially equates the interests of workers with the interests of the state, the foremost mechanism of the working class’s oppression under capitalism.

Two Sides of the Same Capitalist Coin

The part the union bureaucracy plays in this process cannot be understated. As Trotsky wrote, “There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”

We see this in every aspect of the stranglehold that the union bureaucracy has on unions across the country, from the large salaries union bureaucrats rake in every year to the massive amounts of money and resources unions funnel back into the state proper, mostly in the form of unions’ donations to the Democratic Party. While less than one-tenth of the AFL-CIO’s budget goes toward organizing more workers in unions, for example, over 35 percent of its funds are directed toward political activities: these include lobbying, campaigning, endorsing, and donating to Democratic Party politicians who have ensured the steady decline of the labor movement hand in hand with Republicans. Rather than organizing workers to fight independently for their interests, union leaders funnel energy back into legitimizing the state, reinforcing the logic that class divisions don’t exist and that one bourgeois party or this or that bourgeois politician can fight in the interests of working people.

The presence and power of cop unions is just one more example of the ties the union bureaucracy has to the state. It’s not just that unions want to keep hold of their membership numbers and dues among the coveted public sector. Having cops in unions shifts the balance of forces in favor of the bourgeoisie, obscuring class distinctions and further dividing and delegitimizing the labor movement. It ties the fates of workers to their oppressors, undermining efforts to organize independently of them and ensuring their continued exploitation.

When rank-and-file members of Writers Guild of America, East, passed a resolution to kick the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) out of the AFL-CIO, its efforts were blocked by the union federation’s leadership at every level. As the board of the AFL-CIO said in a response to the resolution,

We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them. Many of our unions have adopted a code of excellence for their members and industries that could and should be applied to those who are sworn to protect and serve. … We believe the labor movement must hold our own institutions accountable.

At once blocking the resolution to disaffiliate the IUPA and doubling down on the argument that cops are workers too, the union bureaucracy is standing in the way of the labor movement’s participation in the national movement against police brutality and institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, police organizations are holding their own “Blue Lives Matter” counterprotests, standing up for white supremacy and attracting and emboldening the Far Right.

But this complicity on behalf of the union bureaucracy should come as no surprise. Its refusal to recognize that cops are not workers, and moreover, its insistence on fighting to protect the rights of cops to organize, reveals the role the union bureaucracy plays in society: to mediate class conflict in capitalists’ favor and defang workers’ struggles. Consequently, the fight to kick cops out unions is a fight against the union bureaucracy and vice versa.

A Fight for Hegemony within the Labor Movement

Put simply, kicking cops out of unions is an existential question for the labor movement, one that has been brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement, and as the economic crisis intensifies, this question is becoming increasingly urgent. The outpouring of rage that has rocked the United States for the past four months has forced the labor movement to look inward and to challenge the notion that cops are part of the working class. But it has also created a countertendency from within, backed up by the unions and bureaucracies that fight to protect the police.

Despite their statements of solidarity, union leaders across the country have shown that their allegiance lies not with the rank-and-file members who suffer daily at the hands of police terror, but with the state that engenders that violence. And so the fight to kick cops out of unions is a fight for leadership within unions: will unions be tools of the capitalist state to pacify the labor movement, or will they struggle to become independent fighting bodies of the working class that organize against racism, sexism, homophobia, and all capitalist oppression, wherever it appears?

Kicking cops out of unions is an essential step in forcing the state to retreat from the labor movement and in regaining a foothold for the working class from which organize, unify, and fight back against capitalist attacks. Expelling cops from the organizations of the working class can only strengthen the labor movement, arming it to organize independently of the capitalists. Not only will police no longer be able to use the resources of the working class to continue to kill, harass, and imprison Black people, but the fight to disaffiliate cop unions will draw clear class lines, with cops and union bureaucrats standing very clearly opposite the working class.

There is a growing movement within the rank and file of the United States’ unions to disaffiliate police and other law enforcement organizations from their numbers. In early June, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted with overwhelming support to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild — which represents about 1,300 officers — from the union. The second-largest local teachers’ union in the nation, United Teachers Los Angeles, voted in June to kick cops out of schools and “redirect funding to mental health and counseling.” More recently, SEIU’s Drop the Cops campaign released a set of demands this summer calling on the SEIU and other unions to expel police from their ranks and to adopt a Movement for Black Lives platform. Hundreds of people from across the country attended a virtual town hall to discuss the fight against racism and police terror and to commit to fighting to clean up the house of labor. These examples from rank-and-file members of unions are a direct challenge to the despotic control of the unions by bureaucrats who serve the interests of the police who terrorize Black and Brown, trans*, and other working people in the United States and the interests of a system that sustains itself on the exploitation of the working class.

For all those who consider themselves revolutionary socialists, it is imperative to take up the call to kick cops out of unions and to link the labor movement with the anti-racist movement still raging in the streets. There is no room to equivocate: cops are not workers — they are our enemies. There is no protecting their right to organize or justifying their role in capitalist society. It is opportunistic deception and an insult to the hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in defense of Black lives to put forward any position other than the abolition of the police and the capitalist system it upholds.

For the anti-racist movement to continue in the midst of an all-encompassing election between two Blue Lives Matter tickets, it is imperative that the labor movement take bold steps to carry the struggle forward, starting with the fight to expel police from worker organizations. As we continue down the road of a deep economic crisis, we can expect to see further austerity measures that will result in declining working and living conditions for the working class and an increase in repression from the armed wing of the state — the police — to enforce those policies when workers fight for their lives. This will undoubtedly mean increased attacks against Black and Brown people who bear the brunt of the crisis.

And when people who have lost their wages as a result of layoffs can’t pay their rent, who is it that will come to evict them? The police. When workers organize strikes to protest layoffs and wage cuts, who is it that will come to shut them down? The cops. Therefore, the fight to kick cops out of unions — to weaken unions’ links with this arm of the state — is a crucial strategic step toward strengthening the labor movement in preparation for the coming crisis.

About author

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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Daniel Alfonso

Daniel is an editor of our Brazilian sister site Esquerda Diário.