The progressive left’s calls to “defund the police” have extended to attacking the right of law enforcement officers to have unions. This has put organized labor’s leaders in an awkward position. On the one hand, they’ve been big supporters of the civil rights movement, and “Black Lives Matter” in particular. On the other, they are obviously wary of endorsing the idea that certain people shouldn’t have the right to collectively bargain.
Thus far, leaders like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Lee Sanders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have resisted calls to turn against cops. But their defenses have not been as aggressive as those mounted by the police unions themselves. Trumka, Saunders, and others within the labor movement would clearly rather have the whole issue just go away.
One thing is for certain: Law enforcement officers are heavily unionized. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide a specific number on how many police officers belong to unions. However, most cops work at the local government level, where about 40 percent of the overall work force is unionized. It is possible that police officers are pushing that average up. The two largest police unions, the independent Fraternal Order of Police and the AFL-CIO- affiliated International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), represent 340,000 and 100,000 members, respectively.
In addition to bargaining for better pay and benefits, unions offer police another strong incentive to join up: legal protection. Being a cop is a tough job that sometimes requires snap life-and-death calls. It’s natural for police officers to want to have somebody who will protect them when something goes very wrong and their future is on the line.
“A major role for police unions is basically as an insurance policy,” Dale Belman, labor professor at Michigan State University, told The New York Times. “The feeling of a lot of officers is that it’s very easy to sacrifice them. Something goes wrong and boom.”
As far as liberal activists are concerned, police unions do their job far too well. The activists see the unions as corrupt and essentially part of the problem. Those critics includes people inside the labor movement itself. In a much-noted New Republic article, union activist Kim Kelly called for “abolishing police unions.” The author claimed that police unions are not supportive of the broader labor movement and they have a “long, wretched history” of excusing police brutality.
The idea of expelling cop unions is apparently catching on inside the labor movement. The Writers Guild of America, East passed a resolution on Monday calling on the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the IUPA.
To say that cop unions take offense at the notion that they are responsible for Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s actions is an understatement. “He killed someone. We didn’t. We are restrained,” said Mike O’Meara, president of the New York Police Benevolent Association, in an impassioned speech Tuesday. “Everybody is trying to shame us into being embarrassed by our profession. Well, you know what? This isn’t stained by someone in Minneapolis,” he said while holding up his badge.
AFSCME’s Saunders—who is African-American—said in USA TODAY on Tuesday, “Everyone should have the freedom to join a union, police officers included. Period. The tragic killing of George Floyd should not be used as a pretext to undermine the rights of workers.”
The AFL-CIO’s general board issued a statement Tuesday making the same point. “[W]e respectfully take a different view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. First and foremost, we believe police officers, and everyone who works for a living, have the right to collective bargaining.”
“We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police misconduct is to engage with our police affiliates, rather than isolate them,” Trumka told Bloomberg.
For labor leaders like Trumka and Sanders, expelling police unions doesn’t just mean they lose hundreds of thousands of members, it creates a worrisome precedent that if a union behaves badly enough, then the collective bargaining rights for those workers can be stripped away. That’s a slippery slope they don’t want to start bounding down. But it is one that a lot of others on the left might be embracing.