The Labor Movement is Untenable Without A Reckoning on the Question of Police Unions: A Personal Perspective

Our special guest blogger “Mary Harris” has worked for and volunteered in several major labor unions and campaigns for working class people.: This constitutes an account of her personal feelings and views on the wider labor movement.

Early this summer, the world watched the uprisings that happened in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. The labor movement was left with the question of what to do. Dozens of unions reaffirmed a commitment to racial justice, and labor councils voted on the question of whether or not to expel police unions. Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, notably sidestepped calls to disaffiliate with police unions, stating instead that many police officers today are “community friendly.” Now, as we near the end of September, the question of police unions and their place in the labor movement presents itself again as the nation is grappling with the decision in Breonna Taylor’s case. By indicting only officer Brett Hankinson on three counts of wanton endangerment for the bullets that entered Taylor’s neighbor’s apartment, it is becoming even more plain that our legal system cares more about apartment walls than black lives and bodies.

During those initial uprisings at the beginning of the summer, I was furloughed due to COVID-19 from my job as a business agent at a large union local, where I was the main union representative in two New England casinos. As well as feeling the pain that comes from not being in the shop with my members, I also felt the pain of watching several stalwart organizers, staff, and leaders of the wider Massachusetts labor movement backpedal, advocating for open communication with police unions and echoing Trumka’s desire to keep them in the AFL-CIO’s federation — all while attending Black Lives Matter rallies and making sure that they were seen there.

On top of being almost comically hypocritical, not dispelling police unions from the AFL-CIO just doesn’t make sense for the survival of the union movement. America is on track to become a majority-minority country by 2050, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black workers are the most likely to be unionized out of the 10.3% of workers in the United States who were members of unions last year. Both the credibility and the future of the labor movement are at stake. The AFL-CIO CAN remove police unions from the federation — it kicked out the Teamsters for corruption in 1957 — it just chooses not to. Adding this current racial reckoning on top of a movement wide lack of political education and leadership development for new members spells doom for the labor movement’s “old guard.” Of those few newly hired union employees who understand what the labor movement is and does, how many of them will want to join an organization in the same federation as one that works tirelessly to defend the murderers of people that look like them, or people that look like their friends or family?

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This level of self destruction at the highest levels of the labor movement mostly just makes me sad. Before graduating college (where I studied labor relations and social movements) and joining the labor movement myself, I understood the benefits of a union contract — I am the daughter of a Steelworker and a Postal Worker. My parents were the last generation that could easily find a good union job in the rural area where I grew up, and I consider myself the middle class product of the benefits in the legacy contracts their labor unions fought hard to bargain. However, with this most recent political development, and after agonizing for months of quarantine, and having my furlough become permanent on July 20th, I made the difficult decision to enter a different industry. At least until major change is made at the top.

There is indeed some hope. There is an AFL-CIO election in 2021, and there are credible rumors that Sara Nelson, the militant and progressive president of the Association of Flight Attendants, will run. This would be only the second contested race in the history of the AFL-CIO. Would it solve all the problems in the US Labor movement? No, but it would certainly help set us on the path of fixing the broken moral compass of The House of Labor. Check out the AFA’s statement here: They take a hard line on police unions — reform, or face expulsion. Community based organizing solutions like worker centers are also doing a great job serving the communities that organized labor has left behind. They are often smaller and more nimble organizations that are better suited to fast mobilization during a pandemic, and less beholden to the bureaucracy and politics that plague big organized labor.

Since focusing on volunteer organizing outside of my working hours, I’ve rediscovered who I am outside of this work (I’m sure fellow union staff can attest that your identity often becomes meshed with your current union local), and have been able to devote my time to projects and issues that I am passionate about: digital equity, local politics, and the rights of sex workers. I love the labor movement still. I wrote down my thoughts because I believe that the labor movement is still worth fighting for. I hope that what I’ve written may help other members and staff know that they aren’t alone, and that I can return someday to a labor movement that is just and equitable for all workers.