Cops and unions.


In an un-namable coffee shop in a California suburb on  January 18, 2016, two young white officers talked about the vagaries of their work.

 What matters is who is in the car with you –  you get a stickler and it’s no fun.

Warrants is a good gig. Everybody wants warrants. 

That asshole Sheriff _____ f***’s everyone… 

They  talked about eight day weeks and 12 hour shifts. One spoke wistfully about his dream vacation coming up.  He was going to the mountains. He would watch his two year old play in the snow, sit, play cards, and drink scotch.

A young Latino man walked in, wearing his jeans low.  The cops stiffened and then settled as he left.

I thought he was…

A lot of em look like that….

I sat beside them, trying to look absorbed in something else, wanting to get a hint of their life.  They look past me, through me. The messy middle-aged white-lady was invisible.

An hour before I had attended a Black Lives Matter workshop — part of the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival.    In it we touched on the dilemma facing labor — how does labor address police unions that protect members engaging in brutality and murder?

Musician and social justice activist Pam Parker said the Black Lives Matter movement was the most exciting thing to happen in decades.  She and Steve Pitts, of the Berkeley Center for Labor Research,   talked about the role labor can and must play in advancing the work of Black Lives Matter.  Pitts reminded us that before Eric Garner said “I can’t Breath” he said, “This stops here.”

For Pitts the question was how to win., and in that pursuit he felt labor unions could play a significant role,  provide institutional roots, learning to  follow the leadership of Black youth at the forefront of this movement.  It is our job to fight the rightward tendency of labor institutions – to push the needle forward.

Pitts is working with a commission on labor and race that the AFL created after Ferguson. AFL-CIO President Trumpka calls it a “fragile coalition”.  They are traveling to cities to gather feedback that can help “keep the ball rolling.” They will be in Minneapolis on February 12 and labor union members of Color and racial justice activists are encouraged to participate.

There was no labor upsurge after the murder of Tamir Rice” (the twelve year old boy shot and killed by a cop while playing with a toy gun) but its not too late for a labor denunciation of the non-indictment of his murderer, Pitts noted.

When unions protect murderers the labor movement needs to call them out. Right now the AFL establishment tendency is to call for due process when a cop kills someone, Pitts noted, but BLM activists argue the cop should be fired immediately, while awaiting trial. After all, the dead person will never have due process….

A police unions could be taking a systematic look at what is wrong with the orders they are given, the training they have, as well as overwork, and lack of community assignments where they live,  that lead to police brutality. In the period after the murder of Eric Garner, NYPD engaged in an on the job strike of sorts, refusing to engage in low-level offense searches and arrests. For a moment cops and BLM were on the same page, in action if not in motivation — addressing the need for a change in the job description of our police officers.

If we are going to be a labor movement — and not a federation of federations or a club of clubs, we need to stand for principles of justice above fraternal loyalty. Labor silence at this moment is destructive of both labor and racial justice. That goes for all unions, not just police fraternities.  As Pitts put it We have to realize that working people live 24 hour lives and if getting harassed by cops — or worse — is part of that 24 hour life, the labor movement needs to fight back.

The young cops sitting next to me in the coffee shop, reminded me that police are working people in need of protections and rights that only unions can negotiate: decent shifts, paid vacation, paternity leave, the seniority reward of choice duties.  From their discussion of asshole sheriffs and shift bosses, police departments that overwork their officers, it was obvious that in securing workplace justice for cops and just policing for communities are many issues that intersect that require unions to secure.

But today police unions have crossed the line from worker advocates to mobs, protecting turf and members engaged in high crime.  Labor activists have the responsibility to use our labor institutions, be they unions, commissions, community groups or choirs, to take action against such unions.

Pitts argued that when institutions amplify the words and demands of Black Live Matter activists they plant the seeds offered by young leaders, rooting the movement so it can win.

Win or not — at this moment, labor standing up for Black Lives Matter is what the song “Solidarity Forever”  looks like in action.