You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Labor Movement Needs to Take a Side on Criminal Justice Reform

Scott Olson/Getty

Protesters were still marching through the streets of Ferguson last September when AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka got up to speak at the labor federation’s state convention in nearby St. Louis. The killing of Michael Brown, whose mother is a unionized grocer, by Darren Wilson, a unionized police officer, was especially wrenching for the “big family” of organized labor, Trumka said. “Our brother killed our sister’s son, and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.” Trumka went on to call for police demilitarization, an end to mass incarceration, and a “serious and open-ended conversation” to reckon with the labor movement’s legacy on race. In the same breath, he echoed perhaps the most dependable trope of blue shield apologia, inviting his audience to “think about what it means to be a police officer in this country where violence is so often the norm.”

A year later, it’s unclear how much longer Trumka and other labor leaders can continue to placate reactionary elements within their movement while also integrating a younger, more diverse, more radical generation of activists. When grand juries failed to indict Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killers in December, the AFL-CIO’s sole affiliated police officers union sent Trumka a letter asking him to tone down labor’s support of Black Lives Matter protests. In July, unionized graduate students from the University of California system sent a letter of their own, asking that police be expelled from the federation. Black Lives Matter, for its part, has been defined by a willingness to hold supposed allies, like Bernie Sanders, accountable. Which means that sooner rather than later, and certainly sooner than big labor would like, unions will likely be forced to take sides in the debate over criminal justice reform. And painful though it may be for labor, the choice is ultimately not a hard one.

This August, to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing, leaders of the Ferguson protests released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive policy platform whose stated goal is to “end police violence in America.” One of its ten components is a section devoted to the removal of collective bargaining language and state and local statutes that currently impede “effective misconduct investigations and civilian oversight.” That entails doing away with, among other things, obstructions to the civilian review process, officer participation on disciplinary appeal committees, and mandatory waiting periods that prevent investigators from speaking to officers within 48-hours of a shooting incident.

From a policy standpoint, Campaign Zero is a “tremendous document,” according to Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska professor and criminal justice reform expert. Walker, who was not consulted by the Campaign Zero planning team, told me that the protections targeted by the platform’s “Fair Police Contracts” section have been negotiated, for the most part, “in the shadows”—even in cases where they’ve been codified into state law, under so-called Law Enforcement Officers Bills of Rights. Investigative waiting periods and other such stipulations, Walker said, lack any evidentiary justification or legitimate labor interest. When not simply rearticulating rights already guaranteed in the Constitution, their sole discernable purpose is to secure impunity for misconduct, Walker said. Police unionization got its start in the 1960s, in direct response to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Additional protections for police officers have been secured in waves in the decades since, always in the face of public unrest over discriminatory policing. “I’m a union person, I helped organize the faculty union here… but the police union contracts have things that are exceptional,” said Walker. “They’re just unreasonable and unacceptable.”

That won’t stop police unions from trying to paint reform efforts as an attack on organized labor or public security. “We don’t intend to engage in a dialogue or debate with any group that seeks to undermine the basic rights and safety of our officers,” Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, told me, not at a time when officers are “getting mowed down across the country.” Regarding 48-hour rules, Pasco repeated the notion, recently debunked by Walker, that a post-traumatic incubation period is necessary to preserve memory following a shooting. “There's no debate that time elapsing tends to be valuable” in interrogations, he said. “We have found,” he continued, “that civilian review boards, because of their lack of understanding of what a police officer does and how he makes decisions, don't bring much to the table.”

These arguments are specious but ideologically potent. Over the years, police unions have gone beyond simply defending the status quo to actively encouraging the very policies that foster public mistrust of police—and, hence, the impetus for officers to seek greater protections in the first place. (Unionized correctional officers, many of whom are AFL-CIO members, have also played a significant role in lobbying for hardline carceral policy.) “Police unions have been very skillful for decades at playing the crime card,” said Walker. “If you attack us, or you oppose us, you’re soft on crime… and that’s been hugely successful.” Just last week in Atlanta, police officers locked in a public feud with the mayor over pay raises erected billboards warning drivers, “Enter at your own risk.” On the national stage, a number of Republican presidential candidates have attempted to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for two rare and seemingly unrelated cop killings in Texas and, more recently, Illinois. That Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker should be principal among those leading the backlash is fitting. Walker, who made a name for himself in conservative politics by gutting Wisconsin’s public sector unions, took care to exclude the police from his agenda and later counted on their political support during a fight over state budget austerity.

In that sense, Wisconsin also illustrates how labor should address the fundamental contradiction, as posed by Jacobin’s Shawn Gude, of “inviting agents of oppression into a movement founded on fighting it”—of mobilizing workers alongside police officers in a country where state violence is racially biased and race and class are indivisible. Labor’s biggest mistake in Wisconsin was channeling the energy of grassroots organizing into a short-term political goal—the recall election defeat of Scott Walker—rather than growing a sustainable base by tying the movement to other social justice causes. With the Supreme Court now poised to pull the rug out from public sector unions nationwide, as Walker did in Wisconsin, the existential crisis labor faces can either be an excuse to hold an untenable political line that includes the interests of police officers or an invitation to reconnect the movement to its ideological roots.

Statistically, the decision is already making itself. Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in America, and blacksblack women in particular—are already emerging as the new face of organized labor. But historically, too, from Union Leagues in the Reconstruction South to the United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther on the frontlines of the March on Washington, racial justice is at the heart of labor solidarity in America, and vice versa. As Michael Billeaux, the former co-president of the Wisconsin University teachers’ assistants union, put it at a recent conference, “The labor question in this country has always been deeply, inextricably bound to the question of Black freedom, and when the Black freedom struggle advances, so, too, does all of labor.” It won’t happen all at once, and it probably won’t happen from the top down, but if Black Lives Matter is the latest incarnation of the Civil Rights struggle, then the future of the labor movement stands next to it.