USA: the unions and the cops

Submitted by AWL on 1 July, 2020 - 8:03 Author: Traven Leyshon
US police

Certain small US unions which are traditionally on the left, like the ILWU and the United Electrical Workers, have taken very strong positions — and in the case of the ILWU actually shut down the West coast ports. On the East coast the ILA docks union did nine minutes of silence, in agreement with employers.

The Amalgamated Transit Union, which has a large black membership, has also taken a strong stance, and many of its locals have organised action, including refusing to cooperate with police.

The national AFL-CIO has had a number of requests from affiliates to kick out the police unions that are part of the federation. (Many police unions don’t want to be part of the trade union movement.) But the leadership is opposed.

Many important unions, including local government union AFCSME and the Teamsters, have cops in their membership. There are also prison officers in a number of unions. Bear in mind that, with the incredibly high incarceration rates and vast prison system in the US, there are lot of these people and they are highly organised.

Firefighters’ unions also tend to be very conservative and pro-police.

These organisations generally exert a very conservative political influence in the union movement. Even in Vermont, where the labour movement is generally more progressive, the correctional unions have vigorously opposed any support for Black Lives Matter.

In society there’s a law and order common sense and a glorification of the police and that is reflected in the labour movement too. Mass incarceration has been raised periodically in the labour movement, but not so much in recent years. Obviously the events of the last month have opened everything up and there’s now a chance to have these debates.

The question of kicking police unions out of local Labour Councils or regional AFL-CIO bodies is a very hot issue, but not much has actually happened. The Martin Luther King Labour Council in Seattle — which has a radical history, for instance in the 1999 anticapitalist protests, and real authority — has done it, but I don’t know of any other cases. I’m sure many would like to but there is a fear of reprisals from the national AFL-CIO.

The Vermont AFL-CIO has issued a pretty strong statement on the fight against racism, and it says we don’t want to organise any more police into our unions. But it’s not saying kick them out.

That relatively strong stance has had a lot of feedback from the membership, both positive and negative. In fact in the first place it came partly out of pressure from black members. Some affiliates, e.g. in the building trades, said they were sympathetic but that they knew their members would be opposed.

Remember even in Seattle it was only about two-thirds voting for expulsion.

In terms of debates about policy, the big focus is on defunding the police. Every state and certainly every municipality is facing a revenue crisis and demands for more austerity. So what’s going to be cut? Taking money away from the police to invest in things that are socially beneficial, housing, and jobs, and living people out of poverty, makes sense.

Of course it’s not enough by itself. In the depths of the economic crisis we’re going to need a whole range of measures. The Vermont labour movement has rightly called for taxing the rich. But remember that in the US a huge amount is spent on the police, often a third of municipal budgets, even after years of crime rates falling.

• Traven Leyshon is President of Green Mountain Labour Council in Vermont, USA, and a member of Democratic Socialists of America and Solidarity. He spoke to Sacha Ismail.

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