Why Cops And Their ‘Unions’ Have No Place In The Labor Movement

This article originally appeared at Talking Points Memo.

By Becca Lewis

Class Struggle Workers - Portland at protest against Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd.
Class Struggle Workers – Portland at protest against Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, 31 May.

Amidst nationwide protests ignited by the racist police murder of George Floyd, union members everywhere are asking: how can labor throw its weight into the fight to uproot racist repression? 

Using our collective power as workers is key. The multiracial working class makes the country’s wheels turn, and can bring them to a halt just as quickly. We have the power to shut down factories and docks, farms and urban transport, food plants and phone service. And now is the time to use it.

But it’s also high time the labor movement cleans its own house. In fact it’s long overdue. As mass anger at police killings shines the spotlight on police forces’ role as enforcers of racist repression, the time is now to carry through the demand long raised by class-struggle unionists, summed up in the slogan: “Cops out of the unions.”

In the weeks since Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, cops have responded to mass protests by unleashing more violence on protesters. Yet brutal attacks by police across the country have not stifled the voices of millions. As we march, we chant to remember and honor those, like George Floyd, whose lives were cut short by endless racist terror.

Breonna Taylor, shot dead as she slept in her bed in Louisville.

Jamel Floyd died in New York after guards pepper-sprayed him in his prison cell.

Derrick Scott in Oklahoma City, who – like Eric Garner and George Floyd – died saying, “I can’t breathe.” One of the cops holding him down responded: “I don’t care.”

Here in Portland, Oregon, we remember Jason Washington, a member of the National Association of Letter Carriers, shot dead by university police.

Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland

And in recent days, we learned Atlanta police shot and killed a 27-year-old black man named Rayshard Brooks.

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Juneteenth: 19 June 2020, Oakland, California, at rally occasioned by the shutdown of all U.S. West Coast ports by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in protest against racist police brutality.

As the list keeps growing, we in labor’s ranks join millions searching for an answer to how and when police killings and brutality will end. Workers like me want police “unions” ousted from the labor movement and want cops of all kinds removed from unions and union bodies now: this will be a crucial part of unchaining labor’s power in the fight against racial oppression.

The fact is, we face a glaring contradiction with the inclusion of police in the labor movement. The struggle against racist oppression is crucial to labor’s cause, but the professionals of repression are included in one labor body after another. Freeing labor from any and all affiliation with the cops is crucial to the revitalization of unions, which is a matter of life or death for the labor movement. Yet despite recent efforts by the Writers Guild of America, East and others to rightly call for the expulsion of the International Union of Police Associations from the AFL-CIO, the push has been met with resistance – the AFL-CIO rejected WGAE’s call earlier this month. When members of the labor officialdom try to stop or divert this vital fight, they are wielding the very outlook and policies that have drastically undercut and weakened our movement for years.

We must resolve this contradiction now if labor is genuinely going to unite with the aspirations of a new generation of workers who want to uproot racism – and if the labor movement is going to transform itself into an instrument for the emancipation of the working class and the oppressed.

As a longtime union activist here in the Pacific Northwest – a region plagued by far-right and white-supremacist forces, as well as attempts to impose union-busting “right-to-work” laws – the fight to oust cops from the unions is linked to all of our efforts to put workers’ solidarity into practice. When trade unionists here mobilize against racist attacks and provocations by far-right and fascist groups, police use the tools of their trade – batons, teargas, flash-bang grenades and pepper balls – to repress the anti-racist protesters.

A vivid example occurred in 2017 after a local fascist stabbed to death two people who opposed his racist rampage against teenage African American women on the MAX light rail train. Days after the attack, far-right groups staged a dangerous provocation in our city. Portland Labor Against the Fascists brought out members of 14 unions to stop it. As has repeatedly occurred, a year after the incident, Portland police were caught coordinating with the far-right groups holding a similar rally. The police encouraged the far-right provocations and provided some of those carrying them out with escorts and transport.

Today in Portland, as elsewhere, many of our fellow unionists who work in media have taken to removing logos from their clothing and cameras while covering protests because — like legal observers dragged off to jail when cops yell “round up the green hats” — journalists have been targeted by the police.

Labor playing the role it must in the fight against racist repression is flatly counterposed to harboring organizations whose purpose is to push the claims, and shield the crimes, of the police. And that is precisely what cops’ so-called “unions” are all about. When Minneapolis banned “warrior training” for cops last year, the police “union” even announced that it would provide such training for free.

While labor bodies like WGAE push for disaffiliation with the International Union of Police Associations, the effort is just one drop in one very large bucket. IUPA is just one of the entities representing the demands and interests of the repressors in blue. “We have a dozen affiliate unions that represent law enforcement in some form,” the AFL-CIO Executive Council noted in its June 10 statement opposing WGEA’s demand. Instead, it’s calling for police groups to adopt a “code of excellence.” This would be the equivalent of cops taking a knee before they go out yet again to bust heads and round up anti-racist protesters.

While police associations are not workers unions, many actual unions (AFSCME, the CWA, SEIU, Teamsters and others) have brought “law enforcement” and repression-industry sectors into their ranks. Having professional strikebreakers in the unions — when unionists face repression from cops and guards in every strike — is a recipe for defeat.

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Class Struggle Workers – Portland at an anti-racist protest called by IBEW Local 48, 18 June 2020.

The AFL-CIO leadership’s position would only discredit unions in the eyes of a new generation that must be won over to the cause and struggle of labor. And it delivers a slap in the face to countless unionists subjected to police violence, teargas and sonic weapons for protesting racism or standing on a picket line. The officialdom claims that maintaining the affiliation of police is a question of – wait for it – “unity.” Cops’ billy clubs may “unite” with our heads, but real unity of workers, against racist repression, means uncuffing labor from “unity” with those swinging the batons.

The shopworn claim that it’s just a “few bad apples” involved in police brutality across the U.S. is starkly exposed by current events. When police terrorize black communities, target protesters and break up union pickets, they are literally doing their job — a role integral to the profit system, in which racial oppression has always been key to capitalists’ wealth and power. There is no reform or code, no set of rules or oversight that can change the basic role of the police, and they don’t belong in our unions in any form.

Just digging into the history of the police in America, which began as slave patrols, reveals how central it has always been to racial oppression.

After the Civil War, the promise of black freedom through Reconstruction was betrayed. As industry grew, labor — both black and white — faced bloody police intervention. As black workers took the lead in bringing the 1877 labor upheaval into the South, the cops were there to bloodily break up interracial workers’ struggles. When Democratic Party “Redeemers” imposed Jim Crow, the cops were there to enforce “law and order.” Up North, police joined post-WWI pogroms against black communities, while police frame-ups and vigilante lynchers took the lives of immigrant workers like Sacco and Vanzetti, IWW bard Joe Hill, his Native American comrade Frank Little and innumerable other heroes of labor.

Down the decades, from police massacres of striking dock workers in San Francisco and “Little Steel” strikers in Chicago, to the police murder of black teenager Larry Payne in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike to today, strike-breaking and racist repression are central to the history of labor struggle, and of the police.

When police aren’t enough, companies rely on assistance from security guards like the Pinkertons (currently known as Securitas Security Services), infamous for strike-breaking as “just part of the job” of protecting capitalist property and making sure that bosses can keep unions in check.

On June 2, Minneapolis Public Schools voted to cut ties with the police department. This important step should spread to other cities. And it means opposing any attempts to replace them with private security guards or some other police department, which would mean more of the same.

Today, all labor faces the old question: Which side are you on?

When painters, construction workers, stage hands and others formed Class Struggle Workers – Portland six years ago, we saw the need to end labor’s subjugation to the bosses’ institutions, politicians and parties, and for building a workers’ party. One of our key inspirations was black and white unionists’ struggle to oust police from the municipal workers union in Brazil’s “Steel City.” Our founding program states: “Police, prison guards and security guards are the armed fist of capital, part of the apparatus of anti-labor, racist repression: they must be removed from the unions.”

To unchain the power of labor in the fight against racism and repression, this contradiction must be resolved.

If not now, when?


Becca Lewis is a member of the IATSE L. 28 union and a founding member of Class Struggle Workers – Portland. She works as a carpenter for the Portland Opera and a stagehand. She writes in her individual capacity.

CSWP llama a acciones obreras ante la crisis del coronavirus

Read the English version here.

En la actual crisis sanitaria y económica desatada por el coronavirus, la clase obrera –y particularmente aquellos que viven al día– están siendo lanzados contra la cuerdas, en una situación insostenible. Muchos son obligados a tomar decisiones angustiosas cuando se trata de ir al trabajo, frecuentemente bajo inadecuadas condiciones laborales y de seguridad. Los que son despedidos de sus trabajos son dejados a su suerte. Los que tienen menos posibilidades de protegerse encaran la bancarrota financiera, agobiados por facturas médicas imposibles a pagar.

En esta crisis provocada por el novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Class Struggle Workers –Portland llama a todos los sindicatos y trabajadores a exigir lo siguiente:

  • Todos los trabajadores que no pueden trabajar como resultado del virus –incluidos aquellos que consideran que el asistir al trabajo pone en riesgo su salud– deben recibir su salario íntegro hasta que les sea posible regresar al trabajo, sin penalización ni acción disciplinaria alguna impuesta por el patrón.
  • Todos los trabajadores que sigan laborando deberán ser equipados con todo Equipo de Protección Personal necesario, siendo éste el que determinen los trabajadores mismos. Todos los centros de trabajo deben adoptar inmediatamente las medidas de seguridad necesarias, incluida la sanitización frecuente, el acceso a lavamanos, y la separación física necesaria para protegerse.
  • Los sindicatos deben defender vigorosamente la salud y seguridad de sus miembros y de otros, incluidos aquellos en los ramos laborales que han sido definidos como de servicios esenciales. Los sindicatos de los trabajadores de electricidad y de gas deberán anunciar que se rehúsan a cortar los servicios por falta de pago mientras dure la crisis.
  • Toda prueba y tratamiento médico deberá ser gratuito y estar disponible a quienquiera que lo solicite.

La actual Ley de Baja por Enfermedad de Portland permite a los trabajadores acumular únicamente 40 horas de ausencia pagada por año. Debido a que muchos negocios en Oregon han recibido la orden de cerrar por al menos cuatro semanas, la situación para estos trabajadores es terrible. Sin asistencia inmediata, podrían no sólo perder su casa, sino que incluso podrían perder también su seguro médico. Tiene que haber licencia por enfermedad ilimitada, pagada al nivel salarial pleno. Lo mismo debe valer para aquellos que necesitan cuidar de sus familiares.

Los trabajadores deben exigir que la clase obrera no sea sacrificada mientras cierran los negocios y servicios. Todos están siendo afectados. Con las escuelas de Portland cerradas, los maestros seguirán recibiendo su salario, pero el personal administrativo y de limpieza no. Protestamos en contra de esta atrocidad y demandamos que todo el personal siga recibiendo su paga.

En Seattle, el sindicato de choferes (Teamsters) está llamando a que todos los choferes de Uber y de Lyft reciban 1,000 dólares a la semana en compensación por la falta de trabajo. Esta debe ser una demanda hacia los patrones y los gobiernos a lo largo y ancho del país. CSWP insiste: en lugar de peticiones vagas de ayuda, los sindicatos deben comenzar inmediatamente a organizar para exigir pago íntegro para todos los trabajadores que han perdido horas de trabajo debido al virus.

Los sindicatos deben también emprender la formación de comités de salud y seguridad, que deben ser elegidos en cada centro de trabajo, lo mismo para trabajadores sindicalizados que no sindicalizados, para asegurarse de que todas las medidas de seguridad están siendo aplicadas para todos los trabajadores, y que todo el equipo necesario está disponible. Los sindicatos deben hacer todo el esfuerzo para asegurarse de que los trabajadores sin representación tengan también acceso a toda protección. No debe realizarse ninguna labor sino hasta que estas prácticas básicas de seguridad se realicen.

El cierre de las escuelas ha colocado a las familias trabajadoras y de bajos ingresos bajo una presión tremenda, y en las mujeres en particular, toda vez que alguien tiene que encargarse de los hijos. Las organizaciones obreras deben exigir guarderías gratuitas y de alta calidad para quienes las necesiten, con servicios educativos organizados incluidos.

El que toda persona deba tener vivienda es aún más obvio y urgente durante una pandemia. Un movimiento obrero combativo debe coordinarse con organizaciones de inquilinos y de personas sin hogar para detener los desalojos por desahucio, ocupar las viviendas vacías y las propiedades de inversión y las segundas casas de los ricos, y ocupar espacios hoteleros para proveer alojamiento para las personas sin hogar, y no inmensas ganancias a los especuladores.

Muchos de los más vulnerables en esta crisis son inmigrantes, que se enfrentan no solamente a la pérdida de sus ingresos, sin atención médica y con sus hijos sin posibilidad de ir a la escuela, sino también con la constante amenaza de la deportación. Ahora en California, Nueva York y en otras partes, el ICE está aprovechándose de la cuarentena de emergencia para hacer más redadas y arrestos. Los sindicatos deben exigir: ¡Alto a las redadas y las deportaciones! ¡Cerrar los centros de detención (campos de concentración) para inmigrantes! ¡Liberar a los detenidos para que regresen con sus familias y a sus comunidades! ¡ICE fuera de Portland!

Los partidos gobernantes están explotando la crisis: el Partido Demócrata, por su parte, azuza la histeria en un cínico esfuerzo a marcar tantos en este año electoral, mientras Trump tuitea una imagen de si mismo tocando violín mientras Roma arde, explota la crisis para instigar miedo contra “extranjeros” y dona 1.5 billones de dólares a Wall Street.

La clase obrera necesita un partido que pueda pelear por atención médica gratuita para todos, licencia pagada para todos los trabajadores que están desempleados, desplazados, enfermos o de alguna otra forma incapacitados para trabajar a causa del virus, y medidas de seguridad inmediatas para proteger a los trabajadores que deben seguir asistiendo al trabajo. Mientras se desarrolla la pandemia, la acuciante necesidad de un partido obrero revolucionario internacional no podría ser más clara.

Un movimiento obrero combativo de masas con una dirección clasista establecería comisiones obreras en los centros de trabajo para decidir e implementar las medidas necesarias, incluido el cierre ahí donde sea necesario, sin detener los pagos a los trabajadores, o bien, la continuación del trabajo productivo con la protección necesaria

A la larga, será necesaria una economía planificada capaz de redirigir la producción y distribución del equipo médico, de seguridad y de necesidades básicas, con centros de trabajo organizados con la prioridad centrada en la seguridad de los trabajadores, para pelear de forma efectiva en contra de la pandemia. Esto implica luchar para poner fin al sistema capitalista y la concomitante anarquía en la producción por el lucro privado, la incompetencia, el racismo y la explotación, y así luchar para establecer un gobierno obrero.

Con las vidas y medios de subsistencia de tantos trabajadores y oprimidos al filo de la navaja, la única salida es la lucha de clases.

CSWP Calls for Workers Action in Coronavirus Crisis

Disponible aquí en español.

In the current coronavirus/economic crisis, working people – and particularly those who live paycheck to paycheck – are being pushed into unbearable situations. Many are forced to make agonizing decisions when it comes to going to work, often with inadequate safety and labor conditions. Those who are thrown out of work are left to fend for themselves. Those least able to protect themselves face financial ruin burdened with medical bills beyond their means.

In this crisis, Class Struggle Workers Portland calls on unions and all workers to demand the following in the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis:

  • All workers who are unable to work as a result of the virus – including any who feel that their continued presence on the job puts their health at risk – shall be paid in full for all time missed until they are able to return to work, with no penalty or disciplinary action from their employer.
    • All workers who continue to work shall be furnished with all Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) necessary, as determined by the workers themselves. All workplaces shall adopt immediate safety measures including frequent sanitizing practices, handwashing facilities, and physical separation as much as is required to protect them.
  • Unions must vigorously defend the health and safety of their members and others, including in categories that have been ruled essential services. Utilities workers unions should announce that they refuse to cut off services due to non-payment for the duration of the crisis.
    • All testing and medical treatment should be free and available on demand.

The current Portland Sick Leave law only allows employees to accrue 40 hours of paid leave per year. As many businesses have been ordered to close for at least four weeks in Oregon, the situation for those workers is dire. Without immediate assistance, they not only may lose their housing, but also their health insurance. There should be unlimited sick pay at the highest level. The same should apply to those who need to care for family members.

Labor must demand that working people must not be sacrificed as businesses and services are shuttered. All are affected. Portland schools closed, teachers will continue to be paid, but the classified staff will not. We protest this outrage, and demand that all staff be paid.

In Seattle, Teamsters are calling for all Uber and Lyft drivers to receive $1,000 a week in compensation for lost work. This should be a demand on employers and governments across the country. The CSWP says, rather than vague calls for relief, unions must immediately begin organizing to demand full pay for all workers who have lost time as a result of the virus.

Unions should also take the lead in forming health and safety committees, to be elected at every workplace, both union and unrepresented, to ensure that all safety measures are being enforced for all workers, and that all necessary equipment is available. Unions should make every effort to ensure that unrepresented workers also have access to every protection. No work should be performed until these basic safety practices are in place.

Schools closing has put a tremendous strain on working and low-income families, and women in particular, as someone must care for the kids. Workers organizations must demand free, high-quality child care facilities for all who need them, including organized educational services.

The fact that everyone must have a home is even more obvious and urgent during a pandemic. A militant workers movement would work with tenants and homeless organizations to stop evictions, take over unoccupied apartments, investment properties and second homes of the wealthy and occupy hotel space to provide housing for the homeless instead of the huge profits of speculators and price-gougers.

Many of the most vulnerable in this crisis are immigrants, who face not only loss of income, lack of medical care and their children being deprived of school, but the ever-present threat of deportation. Now in California, New York and elsewhere , I.C.E. is taking advantage of the coronavirus lockdown  to make more raids and arrests. Unions must demand: Stop the raids and deportations! Shut down the immigrant detention centers (concentration camps) – Free the detainees to return to their families and communities! I.C.E. out of Portland!

The ruling parties are exploiting this crisis, with the Democrats whipping up hysteria on one hand, in a cynical attempt to score points in an election year, while Trump tweets out an image of himself fiddling as Rome burns, exploits the crisis to push fear of “foreigners” and hands out $1.5 trillion in free money to Wall Street.

The working class needs a party that can fight for free healthcare for allfull paid leave for all workers who are unemployed, displaced, sick, or otherwise unable to work because of the virus, and immediate safety measures to protect workers who must still go to work. The urgent need for an international revolutionary workers party could not be more clear as the pandemic unfolds.

A mass, militant workers movement with a class-struggle leadership would establish workers commissions at workplaces to decide appropriate measures, including shutting down where necessary, with no loss in pay, or continuing production with needed safeguards.

Ultimately, it will take a planned economy capable of redirecting production and distribution of medical equipment, safety equipment and basic necessities for a large-scale outbreak, with workplaces organized with the safety of workers as a central priority, in order to effectively fight a pandemic. That means a fight to end this capitalist system of profit-driven chaos, incompetence, racism and exploitation, and establish a workers government.

With the lives and livelihoods of so many workers and oppressed people in the balance, the only way forward is class struggle.