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The AFL-CIO’s Untenable Stance on Cops

A power struggle over police unions rattles the heart of the American labor movement.

ILLUSTRATION BY COLLEEN TIGHE

On the night of May 31, as Black Lives Matter protests raged throughout the nation’s capital, the house of labor went up in flames. The imposing headquarters of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations was swept up in the chaos, its windows smashed and its lobby set ablaze. Out front, its seal—a lighter hand clasping a darker one in solidarity—was graffitied with rallying cries like “We matter!”

The next day, the organization quietly released a statement expressing support for the protests while cautioning against violence; its president, Richard Trumka, called the damage to the building “disgraceful.” But the scuffle had exposed, perhaps irrevocably, some of the simmering tensions within the federation. The AFL-CIO represents 55 member unions, a sprawling, fractious coalition of teachers, municipal employees, steelworkers, and journalists—as well as the 100,000 law enforcement officers who belong to the International Union of Police Associations. This leading cop union has come under fire in recent months for its role in shielding officers from accountability in racially charged brutality cases; since June, the labor movement’s newly empowered left wing has been calling on Trumka to kick IUPA out of the federation. Trumka has gone out of his way to offer public support to protesters—even after some torched his headquarters—but he also seems hell-bent on sidestepping the calls to disaffiliate from IUPA.

As the fight pits labor’s radical new generation against its beleaguered old guard, events are forcing Trumka to make a choice he’s long avoided: between the activist and traditionalist wings of the labor movement. On the one hand, Trumka wants to preserve his union’s current, precarious coalition and all of the collective political power it wields. On the other, he can help shore up the AFL-CIO’s longer-term prospects for growth by empowering the activist wing, which wants to advance more robust commitment to social justice—and to adopt a more confrontational posture toward President Trump and all those who support him.


As a former president of the United Mine Workers of America and a retired coal miner himself, Trumka knows what it feels like to be targeted by law enforcement. He made his bones as a labor leader in the hills of Appalachia, during a contentious 1989 strike that pitted 1,900 members of the UMW in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia against Pittston Coal. When the strike turned violent, he was accused of staging “orchestrated terrorism” in the coalfields. But Trumka’s 11 years at the top of the AFL-CIO have been an exercise in compromise and restraint, defined mostly by the mandate to keep his unruly coalition unified in the face of ongoing federal attacks on labor. As a progressive-but-not-too-progressive political player, he has toed the Democratic Party line, embracing an earnest liberalism while shying away from anything that could upset the federation’s more conservative members.

But his efforts to occupy a middle ground have come up short on questions of racial justice. Following the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a white former police officer, Trumka commissioned a report on racism and spoke out forcefully about police brutality. That September, he said, “Our brother killed our sister’s son.” (Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 88; Wilson had the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police.) Trumka added, “Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans.” IUPA’s president, Sam Cabral, sent Trumka a nasty letter to complain. And this past June, as calls to disaffiliate from IUPA intensified, Cabral sent another letter accusing Trumka of “dishonoring” law enforcement and “profiling” cops. Trumka’s statements about institutional racism, Cabral wrote, were “inflammatory and patently false.” Following that dustup, Trumka continued to defend the police as “community friendly,” perhaps in an effort to keep IUPA off his back.

Trumka’s bids to appease the right make sense on some level; the labor movement has been shrinking for decades, and while IUPA represents only a fraction of the AFL-CIO’s 12 million members, kicking it out could alienate the sizable conservative faction within its ranks. As Trumka sees it, the federation—which is funded in part by dues—can’t afford to lose anyone.

But many of the staunchly leftist rank and filers view kicking out the cops as a moral issue rather than a purely political one. In the early twentieth century, the American Federation of Labor opposed the very idea of organizing police, saying that “both policemen and militiamen are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.” And even after it admitted police unions in 1919, its leaders didn’t shrink from confronting anyone who, they felt, had compromised the federation’s ideals: In 1957, for instance, it kicked out the Teamsters for corruption. It could do the same with the cops.

Even if Trumka continues to dodge the issue, it will come to a head during the election of the next president of the federation. (Trumka is widely expected to step down next year.) One of the two front-runners, Liz Shuler, the current secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, would most likely follow in Trumka’s middle-minded footsteps. But if she represents a continuation of the status quo, Sara Nelson, the president of the 50,000-strong Association of Flight Attendants, offers more radical change. A militant rank and filer turned rising star, she has declared her commitment to socialist policies and condemned the Trump administration’s myriad evils. On the question of cop unions, the difference in their approaches is clear: Shuler has suggested asking them to develop “codes of excellence” to enact change. Meanwhile, Nelson’s union released a fiery statement putting those same unions on notice, demanding they address racism in their ranks “or be removed from the Labor movement.” The question is whether the entrenched powers that be will allow her to ascend to the top job.

Until then, the polarizing political issues Trumka keeps dodging aren’t going away. If anything, they are getting worse. On June 18, 18-year-old Andres Guardado was shot five times in the back by a deputy sheriff from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. His father, Cristobal Guardado, is a member of Unite Here Local 11. Once again, a brother had killed another brother’s child.