by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.
For nearly 123 years, police have enjoyed the privilege of organizing under various trade unions until recently when they began to be shunned by many of America’s larger labor organizations for violating the laborer’s sacred code of fair and impartial representation of the working class. According to nation.com in a November 2020 article, “The police were never supposed to have a union.”
The combination of recent police abuse highlighted during America’s 2020 protests, the ever-increasing number of unjustified police shootings on unarmed Americans, and the inexorable disregard for private citizen constitutional rights, all have forged a divide between traditional labor unions and those representing the profession of law enforcement. Some 123 years ago, the first and most prominent trade union began in 1897 with the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), forming the nation’s single most powerful union (AFL-CIO), a negotiating bulwark enacted to form a barrier of protection between the working class and the so called “establishment bosses.”
In the early days of trade union negotiations and subsequent strikes that often followed, a line was drawn between the picketing workers and their bosses, pitting worker against owner. When discussions broke down and demands became threatening, the bosses called on the police to act as their enforcer and their protectorate. A “blue line” was drawn between workers and owners, but often, that line turned from blue to red from the blood spilled at the hands of the police in representing the interests of the boss. After all, it was the boss who brought the police in to resist the demands of the workers. It was the boss to whom the police remained loyal at times of unrest. And throughout the century, it was the boss who utilized the police to “strong-arm” the working class who were the brethren to working class police officers. Throughout the golden era of the industrial ages of the 1900s, countless laborers from coal mines, to steel mills, to automobile factories, to various construction trades, found themselves on the “business end” of a police baton. Laborers were beaten, shot, and many were even killed by their brethren police officers, and always at the behest of the bosses who usually placed profits ahead of a worker’s life.
In the midst of the 2020 civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd and others by police, the festering wound between trade unions and police unions finally tore open, causing years of penned up frustration to rise to the surface. The Writer’s Guild of America, East, in early June 2020, passed a resolution demanding that the AFL-CIO disaffiliate with the International Union of Police Associations citing a failure on behalf of the police unions to uphold “the basic principles of free and democratic trade unionism.” As more reports surfaced around the country describing police abuse and excessive force against law-abiding demonstrators, a multitude of other labor unions began to express disdain for law enforcement. Additional organizations like the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, and the California Labor Federation, to name a few, all vowed to disassociate from police unions. Following this wave of rebellion, new rank-and-file and anti-police organizations began to form under such names as; No Cop Unions, Cop-Free AFSCME, SEIU Drop The Cops, and IATSE Members for Racial Justice.
The AFL-CIO noted, “It would be quick and easy to cut ties with police unions,” however, the organization refused to do so, believing that it may be able to “build a better union from within.” The nation.com goes suggests, “There is power in unions, and that power must be wielded carefully and judiciously,” They warn however, “We cannot stand by and watch as our so-called union brothers continue to brutalize and extinguish working class lives with impunity.” For police and police unions, it may finally be time for the blue line to choose the right side of history.
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