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Spotlight on police unions puts labor community in a tough spot

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Spotlight on police unions puts labor community in a tough spot
The Boston Teachers Union drew fire from the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association in February over their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. BANNER PHOTO

On June 17, Seattle’s King County Labor Council (MLK Labor), an affiliate of the national AFL-CIO, voted to expel the 1,300-member Seattle Police Officers Guild from its ranks.

“We can’t both stand with a police system that’s set up to hurt our black community and stand up for our people of color who are oppressed by police,” a representative of a member SEIU Healthcare union explained. Elsewhere, other unions have been pressuring the AFL-CIO to oust the International Union of Police Associations.

As the firestorm of protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in the hands of Minneapolis police continues, police reform and defunding proposals are being taken up with new urgency across the U.S., with advocates and lawmakers sensing a window of opportunity open for real change.

And as outrage grows at the way police seem to be able to kill black people with impunity ¾ with officers rarely charged and almost never convicted ¾ attention is turning increasingly from individual officers to law enforcement unions.

Even when cities are ready to take steps to rid departments of bad actors or change police culture, police unions, banking on public fears and politicians’ reluctance to appear “soft on crime,” often present a formidable obstacle to change. Over the years, they have bargained successfully for not only typical union wage and working condition demands, but also protections against discipline actions and accountability.

Campaign Zero has gathered data on police union contracts in more than 80 of the largest U.S. cities. The effort has revealed a host of dubious protective provisions such as erasing or destroying officer discipline records; protecting violent officers from “embarrassment” by the city; allowing cops to review evidence against them, including videos, before being interrogated; preventing civilian oversight groups from disciplining officers; and protecting the identity of officers under investigation.

One of Campaign Zero’s eight recommended actions for local, state and federal governments to take to tackle police violence is “fair police contracts” that don’t thwart police chiefs and civilian oversight bodies in punishing officers who are unfit to serve.

A recent Boston Globe editorial argued that lawmakers need to remove matters of police discipline and accountability from the collective bargaining process.

“Until bad cops are fired, they will feel emboldened to act as they wish,” the editorial said, going on to address not just to use of deadly force, but racist police culture: “Until departments can get rid of officers who make racist posts on social media, black citizens will have no reason to trust the officers who are supposed to protect them.”

Uneasy relationship

While on the one hand racial justice advocates and progressive politicians are calling for curbs on police unions to hold violent cops accountable, some right-leaning commentators are seizing the moment to suggest that the problem lies not with police unions, but with collective bargaining in general, thus widening the spotlight to other public sector unions.

This thrusts the larger labor union community into the uncomfortable role of defending the ideals of the labor movement ¾ and the gains collective bargaining has brought for workers ¾ while distancing themselves from the unsavory side of police unions.

In a recent forum, “Police Unions in the House of Labor,” hosted by the UMass Labor Extension, panelists wrestled with the difficult question of “how we engage with police as an institution or with the police officers who are also our members.” All generally agreed that police are workers with a right to organize, but that police unions’ aims often are antithetical to other unions’ focus on lifting up women and people of color. Not all agreed that expelling police unions is an effective strategy.

“Kicking them out does not get rid of the problem,” Tiffany Dena Loftin, national director for NAACP’s youth and college division, said in the forum. “Yes, they can have a union. My problem is when unions protect murderers.”

Panelist Katie Garrow, deputy executive secretary at MLK Labor, noted that police could use their unions to further the common good. Other unions, she noted, have evolved to embrace terms that go beyond employee protections to a wider public benefit.

“We’ve seen teachers unions work to weaken the school-to-prison pipeline and to reduce discipline disparities,” she said.

Nationally, the unsavory aspects of some police unions have been in the open, as when the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association praised the crowd who gathered to cheer officers who had shoved a 75-year-old unarmed protester to the ground, causing a serious head injury.

In Boston, police belong to several unions, none of which are members of the Greater Boston Labor Council. The largest of them, the Boston Patrolmen’s Protective Association (BPPA), has not shied away from attacking elected officials, District Attorney Rachael Rollins and fellow unions.

In February, former BPPA President Michael Leary fired off a strongly worded letter to Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, criticizing the BTU’s support of “Black Lives Matter At School” activities, a week-long set of events during Black History Month, now in its third year. In his letter, Leary called Black Lives Matter an “anti-police organization whose activities have the effect of making my members less safe” and referred to BLM’s “irrational fear and hatred” that he said erodes public support for improving police officers’ wages, benefits and working conditions.

In later statements, both union leaders indicated an intention to engage in a dialogue. Tang said she has reached out to Leary and then to Lawrence Calderone, who is now BPPA’s president, but that dialogue has not yet started.

Joel Richards, a Blackstone Elementary School teacher, BTU representative and chair of the local BLM at School program, said he was not wholly surprised by police union criticism of BTU’s antiracism efforts.

“I was surprised they did it publicly. But after reading it, I wasn’t. It was a total misunderstanding of everything about the movement,” he said.

BPPA did not respond immediately to a request to comment. The mission statement on its website strikes a faintly belligerent tone: “Today, the BPPA continues to fight — often against the prevailing political winds — for the basic rights of the street-level police officer.”

The BTU this month passed a detailed resolution on building an antiracist union. The resolution calls for removal of police from schools, another potential battle line with a police union.

Unions for the common good

Enid Eckstein, a longtime union staff member, officer and activist, emphasized the value of unions today in protecting workers, and especially protecting women and people of color.

“Many people criticize unions for racist practices and historic discrimination, some of which is true — but unions are the great equalizer, your ticket into the middle class,” she said. “For people of color and women, that is indisputable.”

She added, “We need to distinguish between the role of collective bargaining in improving wages and benefits and a police union’s defense of police brutality. … Public sector unions can mobilize members to fight for the common good and good public service.”

In Massachusetts and Boston, even unions traditionally seen as entrenched “old-boy” networks, such as building trades unions, have recently voiced support for anti-police violence protesters. This may serve to make it even harder to ignore that police unions often stand starkly apart from fellow public unions whose missions have evolved to push for broader good.

“Every union has to ask themselves, do they care about human rights? Because that’s what unions are about,” said BTU’s Richards. “I don’t know how you can call yourself a union if human rights isn’t your angle.”