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Police Killings Bring Out Tensions Within The Labor Movement

Some unions and labor activists are calling for the AFL-CIO to expel police unions.

A man holds up a sign calling for the Minneapolis police union president’s ouster during a march on June 6.(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

A few years before Adam Burch was hired as a Minneapolis bus driver, he was arrested while protesting the killing of Philando Castile. During a traffic stop, Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castile while his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter were in the car. After the shooting, police handcuffed Reynolds, and placed her and her daughter in a police car. 

At the 2016 demonstration, Burch and others were taken to jail by a Metro Transit city bus, he said. Last month, as protestors took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death he said the Minneapolis police department put out a call looking for buses.

“I knew what that meant because I knew there was an occupation going on,” he told The Appeal. On May 27, Burch, who has also participated in the past weeks’ demonstrations, wrote on Facebook that he would not take protestors to jail. 

“The transit system should be used to transport the community back and forth, not for the police,” said Ryan Timlin, president of Minnesota’s ATU Local 1005, which represents the city’s drivers, including Burch. “The police have a big enough budget.”

“This was just an outright murder,” he said. “It could have been one of our members that was killed.”

Tensions between police unions and others in the labor and civil rights movements have been heightened since Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on May 25, kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In a video of the incident, two other officers appear to be holding Floyd down while Chauvin put his knee on his neck; a fourth officer can be seen standing by his head. All four officers have been fired and face charges. 

“I feel funny even calling them unions. I normally just call them associations because their interests are not in line with the rest of labor,” said Black Lives Matter-LA co-founder Melina Abdullah, a member of the California Faculty Association. “Police associations and their members protect the police who kill the members of real labor unions.”

During the recent demonstrations in Los Angeles, she said she witnessed officers beat demonstrators with batons and shoot them with rubber bullets. 

“People who have to work for our survival, who have to work for a living have a collective set of interests which include both fair wages and fair benefits, but also include fair life conditions,” she said. “Police are about protecting a different class of people, people who don’t have to work for their living.”

Last week, the executive board of MLK Labor, which represents more than 150 unions in Washington state, passed a resolution stating that unless the Seattle Police Officers Guild takes a number of actions to fight racism, the delegate body will vote on whether it should remain a member of the organization. MLK Labor is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. 

And the Industrial Workers of the World and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee released a statement demanding that the AFL-CIO “immediately remove police ‘unions’ from its federation, and … actively condemn all such ‘unions’ which are actively injurious to the solidarity of the working class.” (The Minneapolis police union is not a member of the AFL-CIO.) 

The Justice Collaborative also organized a letter calling for AFL-CIO to expel police unions. The letter was signed by public defenders, faith leaders, and academics, including Abdullah. The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative and is not involved in the campaign. 

Similar calls have been made in recent years. In 2015, a California local of the United Auto Workers, which is a part of the AFL-CIO, adopted a resolution stating that police “‘unionization’ allows police to masquerade as members of the working-class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the oppression of the working-class.” The International Union of Police Associations, the resolution reads, “fails to adhere to the goals of the [AFL-CIO], and therefore should not be included in the list of unions which are fighting for worker’s rights.”

The AFL-CIO did not respond to requests for comment. Union president Richard Trumka condemned Floyd’s killing and called for police reform, but has defended police unions’ membership in the AFL-CIO. 

“We have a number of unions with police officers in them. People have said, ‘Why don’t you cut ties with them?’ First and foremost, we believe police officers and everyone who works for a living has the right to collective bargaining,” Trumka said in an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday. “Collective bargaining is not the enemy.”

Union members are not in unanimous agreement about the role police unions should play in the labor movement. For Timlin, the problems rest largely with their leadership. In Minneapolis, police union president Bob Kroll has taken “atrocious positions,” and should be ousted, he said. 

The president of the state’s chapter of the AFL-CIO has called for Kroll to resign, saying in a statement, “Unions must never be a tool to shield perpetrators from justice.” 

Some police unions have also denounced Floyd’s killing. In New Jersey, the president of the state’s Policemen’s Benevolent Association said in a statement, “We condemn the actions of the officer involved, Derek Chauvin, as well as the inaction of the officers that stood by and let George Floyd die.”

Burch said that whether or not police unions are part of the AFL-CIO is largely irrelevant to the larger system of oppression the police work within. “The police are still going to break up our strikes. It’s not going to address the racist nature of the police system,” he said. “It honestly lets … what I think are the real culprits off the hook, because the police are only doing the bidding of the ruling class.”

In New York, the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York has attacked the city’s most vulnerable and economically exploited residents, said Jared Trujillo, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, which is a member of the AFL-CIO. The city’s police union opposes bail reform and defended NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Legal Aid client Eric Garner. New York City’s police union is not a member of the AFL-CIO.

In 2014, as Pantaleo choked him to death, Garner said 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” When the police commissioner fired Pantaleo five years after Garner’s death, union president Patrick Lynch said the commissioner chose “to cringe in fear of the anti-police extremists.”

“So many labor unions are really just completely invested in civil rights because they recognize that workers don’t lead single-issue lives,” said Trujillo, who believes police unions should not be involved with the AFL-CIO. 

“Workers aren’t just workers,” said Trujillo. “They’re also people that have to live and survive.”

Most recently, New York’s police union is opposing repeal of a state law known as 50-a, which state legislators introduced a bill to repeal on Saturday. Under 50-a, personnel records used to evaluate performance, such as disciplinary records, for police officers, firefighters, and correctional officers are kept confidential unless release is mandated by a court order or approved, in writing, by the individual officer. 

“More videos surfaced on social media of NYPD brutalizing protestors,” Legal Aid, which advocates for repealing the law, said in a statement last week. “Because of the current law, we will never know if these officers faced any discipline for their actions, or if they are among the ranks of officers who have been allowed to continue in their positions of power despite a longstanding record of wrongdoing.”

On May 30, the police union president claimed in a statement that releasing such information would arm “extremists with confidential police personnel records, so that they bring their weapons to our front doors.” However, New York’s public records law states that, “nothing in this article shall require the disclosure of the home address of an officer.” Exemptions are also made for information that would endanger a person’s life or safety. In the same statement, Lynch referred to protestors as “violent criminals.” 

“Police do not exist to protect the workers. They exist to protect capital,” said Laura Ramirez, an organizer with the feminist activist organization Af3irm, who has participated in the demonstrations. “The labor movement has made itself very clear throughout history, the fundamental spirit of the labor movement is to ensure that people come before profit.”

During the protests in New York City, Ramirez said she witnessed several acts of brutality perpetrated against protestors by police officers. 

“They actually started beating people. Literally dragging them. People were running and they chased them and they dragged them down,” she said. “They are out for revenge.”