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Reactionary Unions Don’t Just Back Police. They Also Back Fossil Fuels.

The left-leaning labor movement is home to a few highly intransigent anti-reform groups. How should labor respond?

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Labor unions throughout history have worked toward multiple goals. While striving to represent and protect workers through collective bargaining, they also function as part of a broader movement aiming to build a world that’s better for workers. Influenced in part by rising socialism—and often socialists themselves—early and mid-twentieth-century labor leaders including A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther talked in visionary terms about what an ideal society should look like. But building an ideal society has always been tricky work. Today, in a world racked by compounding crises, labor leaders are attempting to define what the labor movement is for, what its nonnegotiables are, and who it includes. 

One point of conflict at present concerns the struggle to build an anti-racist labor movement as unionized police officers continue to kill black people with impunity and block accountability measures. There is a spectrum of opinions on how to do that: abolish police unions; kick police unions out of the AFL-CIO (as a resolution from the Writers Guild of America, East, recently called for); or perhaps establish a set of labor movement principles by which police unions would have to abide if they want to be included. Some unions have taken up explicitly anti-racist stances in the past few weeks: On June 5, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA executive board unanimously adopted a lengthy resolution “loudly” declaring that “Black Lives Matter” and detailing a number of steps the union will take in the aviation sector, through public policy pushes and within the labor movement itself.  

The contours of the debate about police unions might also sound familiar to climate campaigners, having themselves butted heads with the conservative leadership of unions whose members’ work is bound up in fossil fuels. In fall 2016, Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan penned an irate letter to membership about Indigenous-led opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which the union had over a thousand members working on. As the encampment against the project at Standing Rock made national news, O’Sullivan complained about a “concerted campaign of misinformation,” writing that a “small, but significant number of Pipeline opponents—most of which are environmental activists from outside of North Dakota—have moved from peaceful protest to aggressive tactics that threaten the safety of construction workers, public safety officers, and protesters themselves.” He went on to call the unions supporting protests against the pipeline—including the Service Employees International Union, the Communications Workers of America, and National Nurses United—“bottom-feeding organizations” that “have sided with THUGS against trade unions.”

Excising police and other workers charged with running the country’s punitive criminal justice system may be easier said than done. Calls thus far have focused on the largest police union, Fraternal Organization of Police, which is not a member of the AFL-CIO, and the International Union of Police Associations, which is. But several traditionally more progressive unions, including the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Government Employees, feature police, parole, and corrections officers, as well as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol agent unions among their other members. 

Decades of right-wing attacks have understandably made these unions bristle at anything that might dwindle membership. Right-to-work laws first rolled out by the GOP in Wisconsin and Michigan have targeted public-sector union rolls that are disproportionately populated by women and people of color; with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME, those anti-union policies are now effectively the law of the land. And leftist calls to defund the police have been picked up by some right-wing libertarians, who would be just as happy to kneecap public-sector unionism once and for all. “Abolishing police unions or even limiting their power will not be easy,” George Mason law professor Ilya Somin wrote recently in Reason. “But progress is possible if liberal civil liberties advocates can work together with conservatives who dislike public sector unions more generally.”

A deeper question facing the labor movement right now is what unions are working toward beyond securing better wages and working conditions for their own members. Bill Fletcher Jr.—a former senior staffer at the AFL-CIO and longtime labor and racial justice organizer—takes A. Philip Randolph’s definition of the labor movement as a “haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.” Police unions don’t meet that definition, he told me, but he also doesn’t think that precludes police from the types of collective bargaining rights conservative politicians want to abolish. 

Fletcher contends that there should be a broader conversation within the labor movement about anti-racism rather than a jump toward disaffiliation. “I think it’s one thing for the AFL-CIO to say, ‘We’re going to have this discussion and come to certain conclusions about this issue of racial justice.’ At the end of that discussion, the law enforcement unions may decide to leave,” he said. 

Recent attempts at such boundary-defining conversations in labor haven’t flourished. While the AFL-CIO convened a Commission on Racial and Economic Justice following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over a white police officer’s killing of teenager Michael Brown, the ensuing discussions ended around the time of Donald Trump’s election and after pushback from the International Union of Police Associations and building trades unions. IUPA also fiercely condemned AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s decision to respond to the Ferguson protests by urging police reform. IUPA, which has been supportive of Trump, used more than a few dog whistles in disagreeing with the AFL-CIO. The police “are not responsible for the single parent families, the unemployment, the school dropout rate or its attendant unacceptable literacy rate among black youth,” IUPA president Sam Cabal wrote. “They are not responsible for the gangs, black on black crime or the infant mortality rate.”

In fossil fuels and policing, respectively, climate campaigners and racial justice organizers are looking to abolish certain types of work in order to build a better world. Thanks partly to those professions’ generally high levels of union representation, fossil fuel work and policing can in many places be the source of some of the best-paying jobs on offer to people without a college degree. 

While fossil fuel–adjacent unions and police unions share conservative tendencies, there are vast differences. First, police have long occupied a position in society other workers simply don’t: violently enforcing a status quo of racism and inequality. As TNR columnist Kim Kelly recently pointed out in her case for abolishing police unions, this has put them directly at odds with the interests of other unions.

Accordingly, and despite the fossil fuel industry’s tendency to portray environmentalists as anti-worker, no climate campaigners have called for an end to fossil fuel workers’ unions the way racial justice campaigners have called for abolishing police unions. Indeed, they’ve been eager to worth with fossil fuel workers’ unions in an increasing number of areas where they can find alignment. Furthermore, within several extractive industry–adjacent unions, there has reliably been rank-and-file dissent pushing for climate action and against reactionary positions by leadership. A Laborers’ International Union of North America local in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, unanimously passed a resolution in support of the protesters at Standing Rock around the time O’Sullivan sent his letter to membership. LIUNA members build wind turbines as well as pipelines, and the resolution stated that “there would be more and better sustainable jobs if we invested in other types of energy that were not fraught with so many accidents.” There’s been no parallel to such efforts within the ranks of police unions. Of course, ending policing does indeed represent an existential threat to police unions—whereas, as union workers in Madison and elsewhere have noted, winding down the fossil fuel industry while investing in a low-carbon economy may well mean more jobs available to their members, not fewer. 

These are hardly separate fights, however. As those demonstrating at Standing Rock learned, police are willing to use force to protect fossil fuel interests; as protests against both police brutality and fossil fuel infrastructure have picked up, state legislators have pushed nearly two dozen laws looking to further criminalize both. Journalist Amy Westervelt pointed out this week in the Hot Take Newsletter that Chevron—which made a big show on social media about its commitment to black lives this week—helps fund a police force 50 percent larger than those in neighboring cities in Richmond, California, the predominately black and brown city housing its pollution-heavy refinery. Meanwhile, those calling to defund the police are calling for investments in sectors that are already low-carbon and often unionized, including health care and education. 

Abolishing policing and fossil fuels are each gargantuan lifts, and climate campaigners won’t be able to do the latter alone: Taking on one of the most powerful industries the world has ever known will require pressure at least as concerted and public opinion–shifting as that put on city governments this summer. As historian Robin D.G. Kelley detailed in his 2015 book, Hammer and Hoe, fossil fuel companies for more than a century have used racism to divide workers against one another, smearing union organizers as outside agitators to break up multiracial solidarity in Appalachia’s coal mines. In more recent decades, utilities have taken to manipulating civil rights groups with generous funding to defeat renewables and energy efficiency measures. Within and without organized labor, there’s no path to a safer and more sustainable society for working people that doesn’t involve overcoming these twenty-first-century divide-and-conquer tactics

Patrick Houston, the climate and inequality campaigns organizer with New York Communities for Change, which organizes low-income communities of color in New York around racial and economic justice, sees clear connections between his day job and the marches he’s been joining in the past two weeks. “Systemic racism and the climate crisis can’t be separated, both when you’re looking at it through a systemic lens—of how racial inequality makes people more vulnerable to the climate crisis—but also just in a more practical, everyday sense,” Houston tells me. “So many of our members are concerned about the cost of paying rent, concerned about how they’re treated by the police. These things occupy your mind and leave less emotional capacity, time, and resources to push for a piece of legislation that’s going to create jobs in your community in the next five years,” he says, referencing NYCC’s advocacy for a Green New Deal in New York, with support from organized labor. 

As the Minneapolis City Council moves to abolish the city’s police force, the historic uprising of the last several weeks is putting policies thought just a few weeks ago to be unthinkably utopian on the table. “It’s a case study for folks in America to see how quickly big change, hopefully systemic change, can happen,” Houston said. “It should be a reminder that if we’re to address the climate crisis at the scale and pace that’s necessary, we cannot put aside the struggles rooted in systemic racism, that we have to address these simultaneously, and with full force.”