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Op-Ed: Why police unions are not part of the American labor movement

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Paul F. Clark, The Conversation

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, news reports have suggested that police unions bear some of the responsibility for the violence perpetrated against African Americans.

Critics have assailed these unions for protecting officers who have abused their authority. Derek Chauvin, the former police officer facing second-degree murder charges for Floyd’s death, had nearly 20 complaints filed against him during his career but only received two letters of reprimand.

Many people who support labor unions in principle, who view them as a countervailing force against the power of employers, have only recently come to view police unions as problematic – as entities that perpetuate a culture of racism and violence.

But this sentiment reverberates through the history of the U.S. labor movement. As a labor scholar who has written about unions for decades, I think this viewpoint can be explained by the fact that police unions differ fundamentally from almost all trade unions in America.

Foot soldiers for the status quo

For many veterans of the labor movement, police have been on the wrong side of the centuries-old struggle between workers and employers. Rather than side with other members of the working class, police have used their legal authority to protect businesses and private property, enforcing laws viewed by many as anti-union.

The strain between law enforcement and labor goes back to the origins of American unions in the mid 19th century. Workers formed unions to fight for wage increases, reduced working hours and humane working conditions.

For employers, this was an attack on the existing societal power structure. They enlisted the government as the defender of capital and property rights, and police officers were the foot soldiers who defended the status quo.

When workers managed to form unions, companies called on local police to disperse union gatherings, marches and picket lines, using violence and mass arrests to break the will of strikers.

A narrow focus

Police work is a fundamentally conservative act. And police officers tend to be politically conservative and Republican.

A poll of police conducted in September 2016 by POLICE Magazine found that 84% of officers intended to vote for Donald Trump that November. And law enforcement unions like the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Union of Police Associations and the National Border Patrol Council all endorsed Trump’s candidacy in 2016.

This contrasts sharply with the 39% share of all union voters who voted for Trump and the fact that every other union which made an endorsement supported Hillary Clinton.

Exclusively protecting the interests of their members, without consideration for other workers, also sets police unions apart from other labor groups. Yes, the first priority of any union is to fight for their members, but most other unions see that fight in the context of a larger movement that fights for all workers.

Police unions do not see themselves as part of this movement. With one exception – the International Union of Police Associations, which represents just 2.7% of American police – law enforcement unions are not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the U.S. labor body that unites all unions.

Alternative justice system

A central concern with police unions is that they use collective bargaining to negotiate contracts that reduce police transparency and accountability. This allows officers who engage in excessive violence to avoid the consequences of their actions and remain on the job.

In a way, some police unions have created an alternative justice system that prevents police departments and municipalities from disciplining or discharging officers who have committed crimes against the people they are sworn to serve.

In Minneapolis, residents filed more than 2,600 misconduct complaints against police officers between 2012 and 2020. But only 12 of those grievances resulted in discipline. The most significant punishment any officer received was a 40-hour suspension.

Besides collective bargaining, police have used the political process – including candidate endorsements and lobbying – to secure local and state legislation that protects their members and quells efforts to provide greater police accountability.

Police officers are a formidable political force because they represent the principle of law and order. Candidates endorsed by the police unions can claim they are the law and order candidate. Once these candidates win office, police unions have significant leverage to lobby for policies they support or block those they oppose.

Because of this power, critics claim that police unions don’t feel accountable to the citizens they serve. An attorney who sued the Minneapolis Police Department on behalf of a Black resident who was severely beaten by police officers said that he is convinced that Minneapolis “officers think they don’t have to abide by their own training and rules when dealing with the public.”

George Floyd’s death has raised serious concerns about the current role of police and police unions in our society. Several unions have demanded that the International Union of Police Associations be expelled from the U.S. labor federation. Other unions oppose expulsion. They argue that the labor movement can have a greater impact on a police union that is inside the “House of Labor.”

In any case, there is a growing recognition that police unions differ significantly from other unions. And there is a growing acceptance that they are not part of the larger American labor movement but rather a narrowly focused group pursuing their own self-interests, often to the detriment of the nation at large.


The Conversation

Paul F. Clark is School Director and Professor of Labor and Employment Relations at Pennsylvania State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image by Ryan Kosmides, Unsplash.

31 Comments

  • Unions have been gutted by both sides of the establishment, Republican and Democrat. Both sides are bought and paid for by global corporate interests, who they serve well. I guess you can blame the democrats a little more than the republicans as they’re supposed to be on the side of unions.

    The shill who wrote this article is good example of how the left has betrayed labor. Instead of fighting for working people in the form of stuff like higher pay and working conditions, workers get lectured on racism. Woke politics replace pro labor policies. People like Clark hate labor because they do things like vote for Donald Trump. Clark has a lot more in common with the establishment elite than he does with the working class.

  • Here’s my op-ed, walk in law enforcements shoes and you can judge them, simple. The psychology and physiology of being a law enforcement, which we actually have data for, is insane. The public has an expectation and truly believe we are computers or robots. News flash they are not. They are human beings who are being tasked daily to make split second decisions. What happens internally and physically to law enforcement is sad. Imagine everyday you went from a 10 mentally and physically, from a baby not breathing call, down to a 2, minutes later to a simple dispute. Unlike other professions there is time to process or compute those emotions. The thoughts and what’s happens to any human in stressful and critical circumstances. But yet there they go. 100 times a day up and down. Now by the end of ones shift you have to some how process that, put it away and go home to their families. To deal with the stresses of every day life. Only to do it again daily and willingly because they believe what they do is good, they believe in change, And they want to serve.

    I’m sure this professor fully understands that or anyone who point fingers. I’m not so naive that I don’t believe everyone else doesn’t have stress or emotions, but do they go through the rapid succession of that daily and often. I think not!

    God bless law enforcement and the USA.

    • Police unions and lawsuits filed against cops behaving badly are bankrupting cities .
      I wonder how many police officers complain about high taxes which are being wasted paying out police lawsuits and ridiculous overtime and benefits.
      The deferred retirement option program DROP is another scam on city funds by police and firefighters union.

    • What happened with all the belt tightening and budget shortfall the BOS and CEO have been talking about? You mean to tell me the Big Bad Sheriff of Los Angeles county harassed, made uncomfortable and physically threatened the CEO of Los Angeles County, one of those most powerful executives in Los Angeles County who is responsible for an annual budget greater than some states? The Sheriff is just one of many Department heads within the county she had to deal with, yet the Sheriff “harassed ” her to the point of needing $1.5 million dollars and a lifetime security retirement detail funded by the taxpayers. As some on this site always like to say, “even with that big fat six executive figure retirement” she is still trying to get more on her way out. Pathetic. If the alleged harassment rose to the level where the board felt she needed all this money, I would like to see the police report to substantiate her claims of being threatened? Oh, and where is the self appointed “watchdog” Huntman? He’s a lawyer right? Shouldn’t he be demanding an investigation or something or is he too busy worrying about deputy sheriffs not wearing face masks since they’re “above the law” it would seem?

      Such BS being perpetrated by the BOS everyday. I’m sure once they’re out of office an FBI investigation will uncover just how corrupt the entire BOS really is.

  • Hi WLA Guest Writer. Your little op-ed piece has already gotten off the on the wrong foot with your very first sentence that reads, in part:

    “In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer…”

    For clarity and intellectual honesty, let’s have a redo:

    “In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a lethal cocktail of methamphetamine and fentanyl, coupled with his refusal to follow basic commands and his overall contempt and disdain for authority, exacerbated by the poor tactics of a Minneapolis police officer…”

    This will make your utterly ridiculous hypothesis that police unions are racist at least SEEM plausible.

    • That makes George Floyd guilty of the Minnesota version of California’s 647(f) pc: Disorderly Conduct–Drunk

      And the $20 counterfeit bill that precipitated the police call that resulted in George Floyd’s death?

      It was never taken into custody, so we don’t know anything about it.

      • You’re trying to make a point and I get that.

        However, police do not have to retreat when detaining someone regardless of the level of crime facing them.

        Garner was slinging cigarettes and now he’s dead. Did he deserve to die? No.
        But he did resist detention/arrest and, unfortunately for him, he was obese as can be, his heart simply could not keep up with his sedentary lifestyle and lack of proper health. So now he’s dead.
        Police didn’t do that.
        They had an obligation to detain him.
        He resisted.
        Had he been healthy he would still be alive.
        Had he been fat and not resisted, still alive.

        Floyd was all jacked up on drugs. He resisted a lawful detention, repeatedly.
        The police did not kill him.
        He died because he was a drug addict and resisted a lawful detention.
        He’d be alive today had he just complied.

        That’s what the whole “movement” doesn’t understand. Throwing the weight of your “movement” on the shoulders of criminals is generally a bad idea.

        This latest clown who got shot, another hero of the movement. What will they say about the rape charge?
        Is there no #MeToo if it doesn’t fit the BLM narrative? Should cops allow a resistive rape suspect to enter a vehicle with 3 kids and a possible weapon inside?
        I’d like to think the nation would argue hell no! But given the destruction of cities it appears most people would just let him go.

        Maybe cops should just let people go.
        They can be like hall monitors in school. Yell at criminals as they go by…if the criminal is dumb enough to stop they can get a warning or a visit to the principal.

        • Excessive force; when resistance from an arrestee ceases, force ceases. Force beyond what is necessary to effect an arrest/detention/whatever is excessive.

          Not a hard concept to understand.

          • At what point did it become excessive?
            As the threat increases your level of force escalates.
            Training, experience, physical capability…you’re a badass but not everyone else is equal to your ability.
            What’s excessive to you may be necessary for someone else.
            Thankfully, Force application is objectively reasonable as justified by the officer applying it.
            Unless libs get their way then ol Rakkakkan can Monday morning QB everyone else’s use of force.

          • “At what point did it become excessive?”

            We’re still talking about Floyd, right?

            When he was on the ground, prone on his stomach, his hands handcuffed behind his back, with FOUR officers subduing him.

            THAT’s when force became excessive.

        • It becomes more than force when the lack of humanity of our LE partners is displayed on their face and directly shows his immediate audience (and now the world) that he can care less if the man is extremely hurt or dying; especially when it obvious the LE partner is in total control of the person. The art of pretending to be hard and justifying poor police work by demonizing others is a clear marker of weakness and an acceptance unprofessional work.

          As for the police unions, the biggest mistake they are making, is voicing and repeating the words of a desperate group of politicians who constantly say police are victims. Police are not victims and will never be victims. The challenges are great and LE always finds a way to adjust to them without becoming whiny or damaging established bridges with their communities. We all know a group of LE who are so connected to their community that they can walk into the nastiest confrontations and establish order. Their methods of communications and good tactics are respected by the public and welcomed no matter how ugly the incident may be. When we fall for the political messages or separatist rhetoric, we look like victims and lose respect faster than a roll call. LE should not position themselves against the public because these are our communities and places we take pride in protecting. Police matter but we are not victims.

          Floyd is representative of the many people LE deals with everyday with drug issues and we don’t hear of other police pressing folks like Floyd in the neck and staring at others with a deranged and callous stare.

          Police don’t have to retreat. But in most of these cases there was a plausible option where other approaches could have been used. In these incidents professionalism and relying on their training (I know, some areas have better training than others), or thinking out of the box would have provided better outcomes. Some times it is better to document that misdemeanor and submit it to the court, rather than allowing ego to motivate a horrible outcome.

          Now we have dead people, injured people, endless investigations, a nation questioning each other and the suburbs. I don’t think any of these officers dreamt their lives and careers and families would be shattered like they are now. Same for all the families grieving for their loved ones. We need to be more honest about these incidents and train train train….

          oh yeah, why couldn’t we see the seventeen year old suspect with a rifle waving at police and speaking directly to them right after he killed two people. Walking down the middle of the street with no one else around, Was he a felon, druggie, ……. Does the state of the union motivate and empower others like him to involve themselves in police matters, or the dishonest justifications circling these events.

          Police are not weak, Police are not victims… Please stop saying it and projecting it. Encourage our working LE partners to be profession and to evolve into the changes and challenges that are presented in their era. LE had to get off of horses, learn to drive cars, move off of expansive ranges to congested cities and they were never considered victims. They had to adjust to the expectations and become more professional.

        • I would like to invite over to my gym for an experiment. I will happily put my knee on your neck for 7 minutes and we can sverify how you will not pass out or die.

  • As an LE attorney for nearly 25 years, I often think police unions are undercut and outright damaged by union presidents and other spox ill-fated public appearances and dealings with the media. I frequently cringe when I see various union representatives appearing on TV woefully under prepared, angry, or just being complete dolts. This subpar advocacy extends to press releases and print interviews; a modicum of tact in advocacy goes a long way. Often, however, the spox amplifies the “angry cop” trope which only supports the anti-LE agenda. Fortunately for SoCal, at least from my perspective, all our major unions do a good job in dealing with the media. As to the larger point of the article, I do not think it is derogatory as a whole, despite my vehement disagreement with the last sentence. With that said, some of the links are, certainly. In any event, we should not be afraid or offended by society questioning police unions and their practices. Indeed, we should welcome the discussion so we can objectively offer counterpoints. Police unions are a unique labor force. Policing is, in the same vein, a unique profession. Thus, there will of course be MOU provisions and other aspects of employment that greatly differ from other labor professions. It is a fairly linear argument and needs to be made with a clear and cool approach. Hopefully, we will see such advocacy in the future.

    • Attorney Marangell, agreed as to your post with your first paragraph, nailing it. Hopefully ALADS Ron Hernandez will take note.

      The email blasts from Ron to members posting Hilda Solis number to jam her phone line was juvenilistic to say to least among other things, via ALADS Facebook.

      Social media can be a good thing when used appropriately and professional.

      • @Interesting, THAT you are!

        Let’s not hijack another thread.

        Glad to hear you view our FB page.

        Fyi: that was one of our more popular messages.

      • .@ Interesting: Thank you for the kind words. Please note, however, I was referring to union reps and spox advocacy in the press (in any form) not in their communications with their members or posts to social media. My point remains, SoCal unions (all of them) deal with the press very effectively.

  • LOL, I completely agree. Cops should stop committing crimes. (Is this the Real LOL or Fake LOL)

    Lady Kong, you sound like Bernie. What is going on? I’m gone a few months and you go soft on me.

    OP-Ed 2.0 – You are correct, the psychology of LE is in insane. Many of them are insane and have other psychological issues. The work attracts people like that. And, I do not think anyone thinks you are computers or robots. They think some of you are idiots and others racists, and some racist idiots. I’ll leave it at that because Celeste gets upset if I cross into the “extravagantly anti-police” language.

    Rakkasan – Disorderly conduct? Yup, he deserved to die. Can we do that to the little Banditos? They have been acting quite disorderly these days. When Darden took out a few that he felt disrespected him, you ladies got all worked up. Now, there was a man with follow-through, that go-getter ethos that built this country.

    Real LOL, you are correct, the police do not have to retreat when someone that committed a crime is facing them. But, my friend, that works both ways, a citizen does not have to retreat or submit to the cop if the cop is using excessive force. Now, fist versus gun is a no brainier, so not too many fight back. Instead, they become the Dardens or Micah Johnsons of the world. Just to be clear, lest you run to Celeste, I am nonviolent and do not advocate violence. Self defenses, yes, but not violence.

    And 1 – in regards to your previous post, I am flattered that you noticed I was gone for a while. And, no, ladies, I was not in rehab. Celeste was taking the fun out of it and the site was becoming too toxic, even for me. She thought I was not playing nice and my posts, as Lady Kong figured out, weren’t making it to my friends, depriving them of my wit and wisdom. But, alas, I was driving by the City of Vernon and saw the Farmer John’s plant and it brought a tear to my eye. I realized I missed my drove, or is it passel, of uniformed racist friends. I’ll try to play nice and be more diplomatic in my tone.

    • Cf is an ex LASD reserve who rode along in West Hollywood. He’s a flake and has a chip on his shoulder because the department wouldn’t hire him as a full time deputy. His first name is Greg , goes by GG. he’s just seeking attention, literally can’t help himself.

  • Rakkakakakaaaakakak- I guess u didn’t see the Floyd videos where he is resisting pretty much the entire time. His death was tragic but avoidable.

    CF, welcome back. I had hope Corona or maybe a stray LAPD 40mm got u. Next time!
    Let’s cut a deal. Cops will stop using force if….big IF…your people stop breaking the law.

  • In 1919 the American Federation of Labor help lead a strike by the Boston Police Department. 72% of the rank and file supported the strike and were eventually fired. The strike did not go well for the overall labor movement. All the strikers were fired. The AFL backed off. The public attitudes were that LE had no more right to strike than the military. Civil Service, binding arbitration and other system emerged to protect the rank and file not because anyone cared about the COPs but because LE became part of the spoils system and was easily corrupted. Reformist realized that LE with no protection were beholding to the Political Class who had very little in the way of ethics. Creating Employee protections for COPS went a long way to end the spoils system and corruption. The legislation proposed in Sacramento will invite a return of this spoils systems. Jeffrey Epstein was outed because two cops bucked the Democratic Machine in Palm Beach County. They were harassed, surveilled and intimidated and ultimately went to the Feds. Think they are mad at these two cops who just wanted protect sexual assault victims?

    So let’s be clear the Labor Unions abandon COPs in their first major efforts to unionize. COPs do not have all the rights of other Unions, in particular, they can not strike. Independent COPs are a threat to the Political Class who want complete control. Their claim to want to remove these protections, allegedly to protect the public, is laughable. They want to silence LE as critics and as a threat to their vision and efforts to seek greater power.

  • Even though California law enforcement has made the most strides and advances away from bad past practices, it isn’t enough for some it would seem. The state legislature is voting on Proposition 731 tomorrow, which involves sweeping and major changes to police liability and certification. Take a look at the language if you have time. The legislature is taking advantage of all the recent events involving law enforcement to force this through. Whoever said politicians weren’t opportunist willing to exploit tragedy, chaos or turmoil for the advancement of their own political agenda. By the looks of this bill, no need to defund the police, no will want to do the job due to the risks….and not the physical risks by the way.

      • Yes an opinion piece written by the sibling of a man who:

        1) Was armed with a knife
        2) Attacked a police officer and attempted to gouge his eyes out
        3) was heavily under the influence of meth
        4) was not shot, but tasered
        5) died later

        Gee
        Imagine what opinion the family must have.
        I bet it’s not, mijo was a piece of shit, criminal scum bag, who attacked cops, and ingested a powerful stimulant.
        Nope.
        Winner!
        The cops wrongfully took this man’s life.
        Lmao.
        Sorry family but he killed himself.

        • True enough, but death occurred AFTER the suspect was handcuffed hands behind back & in custody and the death itself was ruled a homicide–death at the hands of another–by the yolo County Coroner.

          Links to all that are within the story I cited.

          • Uh, yeah. Homicide does not indicate a crime, violation of policy, or anything other than died by another human.
            Yolo County listed cause of death as:
            “methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.“

            Meth intoxication- his own demise
            Restraint by law enforcement- his own demise as he chose to be assaultive.

            Story over. No amount of money will make this dead homie a great guy.
            No amount of crying will decertify the officers involved.

            SacBee is right around ElSegundo Times in their boss.

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