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.

Photo Jun 19, 1 14 08 PM
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.

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.

“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Reprinted from Bridge City Militant No. 2

Bust the Union-Busters – We’ve Got the Power, Use It or Lose It!

“Right to Work” = Slave Labor Laws

Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)
Madison, Wisconsin, February 2011: over 100,000 unionists surround the state capitol to block Right to Work. A general strike was discussed, but local AFL-CIO tops called off protests in favor of electoral support for Democrats. Result: Wisconsin is a right-to-slave state. Labor’s got to play hardball to win! (Photo: Yuri Keegstra)

A major attack is coming down on our unions. Last year, the Supreme Court took a case from a small group of right-wing ideologues, Friedrichs et al., against the California Teachers Association. The case seeks to crush the unions financially by overturning the “agency shop” rule. If the unelected life-term hangmen on the Supreme Court hand down a verdict for the business lobbies against the teachers union, it will give a green light to governments and bosses across the country to go on a union-busting, contract-shredding campaign against a weakened union movement. A decision is expected this spring.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the anti-union “Freedom” foundation has brain-trusted and bankrolled a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate the agency shop for home care workers in SEIU Local 503. (“Freedom” for who? They are against our right to strike. Someone should remind them that the North won the Civil War.) And every election season in Oregon and Washington, as in states across the country, we see ballot initiatives that would implement these and other anti-union measures, going under the deceptive banner of “right to work.” In 2015, the initiatives were put on hold when the Oregon Supreme Court gave them a title that doesn’t jive with the slick marketing plans of the union-busting lawyers. But they’ll be back again next year.

2016 could be the year of a decisive struggle here and nationwide over union rights and union power. Union militants need to prepare our ranks for battle now. If the unions lose, we could be headed back to the bad old days before the mass struggles in the 1930s that founded the industrial unions in this country. Poverty wages, no job security, no health care (don’t count on ObamaCare – see “Obamacare Screws Workers, Windfall for Insurance Companies”), no retirement (they’re going after our Social Security, too), and unions reduced to ineffective guilds representing only the most privileged crafts.

But we can win. In every opinion poll, the big majority of workers say they would join a union if they had the chance. While the economic crash of 2008 never really ended for the working class, especially for black and Latino workers, the “recovery” is starting to make workers feel more confident about standing up for long-delayed raises and other improvements after decades of belt-tightening. Minimum-wage, non-union workers in fast food and retail are courageously rising up, even though the union leaders do little to actually organize them or defend their jobs. And although the established unions are much weaker than they ought to be, they still represent millions of workers in strategic industries that can shut this country down. We need to use that power before we lose it.

The union leaders know that this attack is coming. “Right to work” would put a big dent in dues collections. But as in everything else, these “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” won’t lead the fight back. By relying on their Democratic Party “allies” and on desperate attempts to play the media spin game in the capitalist press (they call this “education”), while opposing any militant labor action, they are giving up before the fight even begins. We can’t let this happen.

It’s true that the Democrats are happy to take millions in campaign contributions from union political action committees, and the “Right to Work” hard-liners are mostly Republicans. But the Democrats won’t fight the union-busters. On the contrary, they are a capitalist union busting party just as much as the Republicans, and if the “Right to Work” holy warriors win their lawsuits or referendums, Democrats from City Hall to the White House will enforce the new laws against the workers. Who called out the Coast Guard against the locked out ILWU on the Columbia river last year? Democratic President Obama, endorsed by the ILWU leaders. Who is gearing up for another showdown with the Chicago teachers union? Obama’s right hand man, Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose cops are famous for assassinating black kids and running a CIA-style torture center at Homan Square. Who will be de-funding and attacking public workers in Oregon, from Laborers to teachers to SEIU, if Friedrichs wins? Labor’s phony “friend,” Democrat governor Kate Brown.

San Francisco newspaper Bloody Thursday ILWU
The capitalists will always try to chain the workers with anti-union laws. If we play by their rules, we’re bound to lose, but militant workers action can win. July 1934: the National Guard is deployed in San Francisco against an “illegal” general strike. Three strikers are gunned down, but the strike gives birth to the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

Union leaders say that our ties to the Democrats give us “influence,” but it’s really the other way around. Look at what happened in Wisconsin in 2011. The Republican governor, Scott Walker, tried to ram through a “Right to Work” law. Tens of thousands of union supporters surrounded the state capitol in Madison, physically blocking the meetings from going forward. The local Central Labor Council even talked about a general strike, which was possible and needed to kill the anti-union law. But at the last minute, the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” opted for an electoral approach, a petition to recall Scott Walker, presumably in favor of a Democratic successor. The workers were demobilized, and they lost. Now Wisconsin and neighboring Michigan, the birthplace of the mighty United Auto Workers, are “right to work” states. In Michigan, the union leaders’ usual “smart” tactics of lobbying and begging failed completely, and “right to work” was imposed without a fight.

The policies of the union tops fail because they are based on class collaboration with one wing of the party of capitalist property, the Democrats. But what we’re facing is a bipartisan, one-sided class war as Wall Street seeks to squeeze ever-higher profits from our labor and eliminate “unnecessary” expenses like education, health care and basic health, safety and environmental protections. To fight “right to work” we need to prepare to wage the class war. It’s a struggle that labor can win because it’s a struggle of millions of working people, without whose labor “not a single wheel would turn,” against a tiny class of parasites who produce nothing but misery and oppression for the vast majority of humanity.

“Right to Work” seeks to end the “agency shop.” The agency shop itself is a rotten compromise that was imposed on the unions in exchange for anti-labor laws that outlawed the closed union shop. Under the agency shop, workers at an organized company or state agency don’t have to join the union, but they do have to pay a portion of the union dues, often called “fair share fees” or “agency fees,” and everyone gets the benefits and wages that the union negotiates from the employer. The big majority of workers do sign up for the union, because they understand that it stands for their rights and welfare. But this arrangement still weakens the union, and encourages the natural tendency of the union bureaucrats to run the union like an “independent,” “neutral” welfare agency rather than the fighting self-defense organization of the workers.

The other arrangement that leaves the unions vulnerable to the “right to work” attack is that most unions have allowed the bosses – private companies or government agencies – to collect their dues through paycheck deductions. We never should have allowed the class enemy to get their hands on the finances of our organizations. Dues should be collected directly by the union. This is not just an elementary self-defense measure, it’s a boost for union democracy and a check on out-of-touch bureaucracy in our unions.

Above all, every union needs to begin preparing to fight the coming union-busting onslaught in the streets and in the workplaces. We need to form committees in every local and every workplace to prepare to tie up metro Portland like the workers in Wisconsin shut down Madison in 2011 – but Wisconsin shows that we can’t let the fight be diverted into the dead end of electoral support for the Democrats or any capitalist party. We need a class struggle workers party: not just a vote-getting apparatus but a party to organize and lead the fight for the oppressed and exploited, using the powerful weapons that our class has.

To defend the unions where we have them, and to encourage workers at non-union shops to go union, we must fight for the union shop no matter what the bosses’ laws or the bosses’ courts say. Workers fought and died to have a collective organization against the bosses, because as individuals we are “free” just the way the “Freedom Foundation” would have it: free to work under the bosses whim, or free to quit and starve. We shouldn’t allow freeloaders and suckers who’ve been duped by anti-union propaganda to undermine our power.

At the 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO convention, class-struggle militants brought this perspective to the floor in the form of a resolution to fight Right to Work. As expected, it was shot down by the union leaders, who are planning to lose this crucial battle. The labor bureaucrats who sit on top of Oregon unions are so loyal to their Democratic Party masters that they even endorsed a poverty wage ballot initiative designed to undercut efforts to get a $15 minimum wage initiative on the ballot, then, in an act of disgusting hypocrisy, they “endorsed” the $15 initiative too. Thanks a lot. If workers want a big raise we can’t rely on the rigged electoral game or the sellout union leaders. We are going to have to fight for it the class-struggle way, by unionizing low wage workers and shutting down businesses that don’t pay our minimum wage demand with solid strike action.

The perspective we outlined at the AFL-CIO convention garnered strong support from rank and file delegates, ranging from teachers to laborers and postal workers. The leaders of organized labor have learned nothing and are preparing to sell out big time, with disastrous consequences for the working class. They need to be replaced by a class-struggle leadership. Every step we take to prepare for a real fight against “right to work” union busting is a step to rebuild workers power and organize the unorganized. CSWP supporters will continue our efforts to defend our unions, and we urge fellow union members to join us. ■

Resolution for 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO convention


WHEREAS, unions are required by law to represent all employees in a bargaining unit, whether they are union members or not; and

WHEREAS, at least two “right-to-work” initiatives, allowing workers in unionized public sector jobs to avoid paying for their representation, are in the process of becoming ballot measures in Oregon; and

WHEREAS, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a main sponsor of misnamed “right-to-work” initiatives in the Pacific Northwest, financed by union-bashers such as the Koch Brothers and Wal-Mart, is pushing lawsuit against SEIU Local 503 which represents over 20,000 home care workers in Oregon; and

WHEREAS, the unionization of the largely minority home health care workers in the state has raised their wages by more than two-thirds, as well as providing medical and health coverage; and

WHEREAS, unionization has boosted the wages and job security of all workers and particularly of African American, Latino, Native American and immigrant workers; and

WHEREAS, the anti-labor ballot measures are designed to undermine and financially ruin public sector unions which are vital to the welfare and living standards of all workers; and

WHEREAS, ballot measures in Oregon are part of a national campaign by corporations and their political supporters to destroy unions and wipe out the gains won by organized labor; and

WHEREAS, the U.S. Supreme Court last July agreed to hear a case that could eliminate “fair-share” fees paid to public sector unions, in effect creating a national “right-to-work” law by judicial fiat; and

WHEREAS, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, after eliminating collective bargaining rights for public sector workers in 2011 and now ramming through a state “right-to-work” law, is campaigning for such a law nationally; and

WHEREAS, the same forces backing these union-busting laws such as Illinois governor Bruce Rauner want to eliminate the minimum wage entirely rather than raising it to a living wage; and

WHEREAS, support for these measures in Oregon comes from big lumber, including Freres Lumber Co. and Stimson Lumber Co. and right-wing politicians such as Washington County Attorney, Jill Gibson; and

WHEREAS, workers in “right-to-work” states earn substantially lower wages, have less employer-sponsored health insurance or pensions and significantly higher workplace death rates due to weakened union protections; and

WHEREAS, the experience of Michigan, where anti-union forces pushed through “right-to-work” laws with a stealth campaign while organized labor did little to stop them, shows the danger of complacency; and

WHEREAS, backroom deals with legislators and state officials will not stop a determined employer offensive; and

WHEREAS, the union-bashing offensive that began even before the 1981 PATCO air controllers strike, which many other unions failed to support, shows that a failure to fight has disastrous results; and

WHEREAS, the powerful labor mobilization in Wisconsin in 2011 demonstrated that the public will enthusiastically back unions when they fight, despite anti-labor media campaigns; and

WHEREAS, the failure of Wisconsin unions to call a state-wide strike at the crucial moment, even after preparing for one, led to a devastating defeat while the strategy of a “recall” and voter turnout campaigns predictably failed to repeal “right-to-work” legislation in Wisconsin; and

WHEREAS, the power of our unions rests in our ability to use our economic strength in defense of our rights as workers, and failure to use that power only emboldens the labor-haters; and

WHEREAS, we have had enough of the one-sided class war waged by profit-greedy bosses,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that this body expresses the determination of Oregon workers to whatever it takes to defeat any such union-busting laws, including using our right to strike to defend the union shop; and be it further

RESOLVED, that we urge Oregon and Washington unions and their supporters to mobilize at “right-to-work” events with rallies, marches and other means to expose the drive by cutthroat employers to drive our wages to the bottom while they make billions in profits from our labor; and be it further

RESOLVED, that area unions should prepare a major region-wide stop-work action against this effort to impoverish workers by using the courts and the rest of their legal arsenal; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the Oregon AFL-CIO will encourage and support any affiliated locals collecting dues from represented workers directly, in order to stymie employer attempts to cripple labor financially; and be it finally

RESOLVED, that in defending union independence from the bosses and standing together in defense of all those threatened by the employers’ assault, WE HAVE THE POWER TO DEFEAT THE WAR ON WORKERS, BUT WE MUST USE THAT POWER OR LOSE IT.