The Bad Kind of Unionism

When police unions have widened their gaze beyond issues like compensation and working conditions, it’s been almost exclusively to conservative ends.

A police parade in New York City in 1915. Bain News Service / Library of Congress

Their profession is heavily unionized. Culturally, they have more in common with bus drivers than business executives. Many come from working-class backgrounds.

Yet on the beat, police come in contact with — to question, to arrest, to brutalize — the most disadvantaged. This presents a problem for radicals. If the Left stands for anything, it’s worker emancipation and labor militancy. But police and others in the state’s coercive apparatus, workers themselves in many respects, are the keepers of class society. Their jobs exist to maintain social control and protect the status quo.

The introduction of unions to this portion of the state raises additional concerns. Can “coercive unions” ever advocate for the broader working class, rather than members’ narrow self-interests? Or are police unions irredeemably reactionary?

It’s easy to focus on the individual over the institution. Not a few police officers are drawn to the profession out of a desire to “serve the public.” Many genuinely want to serve, and take great pride in their chosen occupation. Police don’t have to enjoy breaking up protests; they don’t have to be racists or hate homeless people. But once they decide to do their jobs, institutional exigencies overwhelm personal volition. When there’s mass resistance to poverty and inequality, it’s the cops who are summoned to calm the panic-stricken hearts of the elite. They bash some heads, or infiltrate and disrupt some activist groups, and all is right in the world again.

Such is the inherent defect of law-enforcement unionism: It’s peopled by those with a material interest in maintaining and enlarging the state’s most indefensible practices.

It’s hard to imagine how it could be any different. Chicago teachers, exemplifying the kind of social-movement unionism that defends the working class broadly, organized the community before their strike by trumpeting a vision of equitable education. The Left cheered. How could anything similar be achieved by prison guards? A police strike would appear to signal an incipient authoritarianism, cops untamed by democratic dictates. How could empowering police — increasingly militarized and shot through with a culture of preening brutality — yield anything but stepped-up repression? How could the traditional socialist goal of worker self-management result in anything but a dystopia of metastasizing prisons, imperious cops, and Minuteman-esque border-patrol guards? The best we can hope for from police, it seems, is passivity.

As Kristian Williams documents in Our Enemies in Blue, professionalized policing arose in the United States amid urbanization in the 1820s and 1830s. Controlling “dangerous” classes (principally of the industrial working variety), more than ameliorating any pronounced spike in crime, was the reason for its formation. The institution had its roots in slave patrols, which were established to control the behavior of slaves — the “dangerous” classes of that day.

In the late 1800s, when more workers bandedtogether to improve their situation, elites once again blanched. Police broke up strikes, confiscated pro-labor newspapers, and arrested radicals. States like Pennsylvania set up forces to deal with labor stoppages. Free speech and free association were subordinated to private property.

In this respect, little has changed. The activist who is doing anything of value expects to be under surveillance, and is on the lookout for agents provocateurs. Where capital is concerned, cops are custodians, and the First Amendment is flotsam.

Other subtler — primarily ideological — forms of policing have long existed. The police officer, border patrol guard and corrections officer only step in when abstract injunctions need to be made tangible. When all attempts to modify citizens’ behavior have failed, they appear — to intercept undocumented immigrants forced from their home countries by Global North-favoring trade agreements, to watch over incarcerated drug dealers from deindustrialized wastelands. When they exercise their power, it’s far from subtle; they are the state’s monopoly on violence incarnate. And they have a vested interest in seeing their power increase unchecked.

When police unions have widened their gaze beyond issues like compensation and working conditions, it’s been almost exclusively to advance conservative ends. “Police,” as Williams puts it, “organize as police, not workers.”

They’ve bitterly opposed civilian review boards (and, if established, have sought to undermine them). They’ve fought the placement of names and badge numbers on officer uniforms. They’ve resisted rooting out police misconduct. “The modern police union movement,” criminologist Samuel Walker argues, “originated largely in reaction to the civil rights movement and its criticisms of police conduct during the 1960s. . . . Any local unions originated or at least became more militant in response to specific police-community relations initiatives in the 1960s.”

And police unions aren’t even the worst actors.

In the hovel of coercive unionism, the California prison guards union (the California Correctional Peace Officers Association) is the leader. The organization has long defined itself as separate from the mainstream labor movement. Politically, the California prison guards aren’t wedded to the Democratic Party, and institutionally, they’re not affiliated with either of the nation’s labor federations. The association has proven its ability to parlay mass incarceration into increased political power, membership, and dues. They bankroll “victim’s rights” groups, they fight anti-incarceration referenda, they funnel millions to Democrats and Republicans who adopt law-and-order stances.

When tougher sentencing became the new norm several decades ago, the organization was small — membership totaled about five thousand, and their budget didn’t crack a half a million dollars. They now represent more than thirty thousand correctional officers. In 2008 alone, they spent nearly $5 million to elect sympathetic candidates and, more importantly, to defeat a ballot measure seeking to reduce the prison population through treatment instead of incarceration. Other prison-guard unions have benefited from the prison boom, but none have been able to capitalize on the carceral state as well as the CCPOA. The union looks at the marginalized and sees an opportunity for enrichment.

Two of the CCPOA’s ideological cousins are the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) and the National ICE Council. Unlike the CCPOA, the two are inhabitants of the House of Labor — they’re member unions of the American Federation of Government Employees, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. On immigration, however, they’ve bucked the federation’s pro-reform line (a line that has already conceded far too much to the Right).

Above all, both organizations are interested in more enforcement — despite the Obama administration’s deportation of undocumented immigrants at a faster rate than any previous president. The two groups’ preferred term for undocumented immigrants is “illegal aliens,” of course. ICE Council President Chris Crane, the New York Times wrote in June, has been “the most frequent witness on Capitol Hill during this year’s immigration debate and the favorite expert of conservative critics of the Senate measure.”

On top of trying to scuttle any path to citizenship, the border-patrol union has resisted efforts to restrict its violent mandate. “If you don’t throw rocks at Border Patrol agents,” the NBPC’s charming vice president said in November, “you won’t be shot.”

There are counterexamples — including, ironically, among police in apartheid-era South Africa.

In the 1980s, black police officers in that country were enforcers of their own subordination. Internally, they were mired in low-level positions and lacked collective-bargaining rights; externally, they couldn’t arrest whites, yet had to quell unrest that threatened to topple the racist Afrikaner government. Economically desperate and typically lured from rural areas by the promise of a paycheck, some, having coarsened once on the force, patrolled restive townships unsympathetically.

Revolutionary organizations and community members urged black police to join the struggle for liberation. In September 1989, they got their aggrieved dissident — Gregory Rockman, a slim, mustachioed lieutenant in a Cape Town suburb. The thirty-year-old lambasted the riot police — “a pack of wild dogs,” in his estimation, that “feasted on the people” — and said he sought “a whole new era of police in South Africa [and] to assure the public they are not enemies but protectors.”

The next month, Rockman presided over the establishment of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) — the first real trade union in South Africa, according to the sociologist Monique Marks.

Their first demonstration resulted in the arrest of Rockman and twelve others. Membership mushroomed, but so did management repression. Cops who tried to join were suspended or fired, meetings were broken up by tear gas, and members were bludgeoned with batons. With resistance came solidarity. “The sight of policemen in uniform singing freedom songs and shouting anti-apartheid slogans touched off popular demonstrations of support,” scholar Gavin Cawthra wrote in his 1993 book Policing in South Africa.

Intimately linked to the African National Congress, conceived in the crucible of anti-apartheid struggle, the POPCRU’s infancy was a study in social-movement unionism. On their website, they still trumpet their devotion to “advancing the working-class struggle within the criminal justice system.”

But there’s cause for skepticism. Can an established amalgamation of police and prison guards really advance the working-class struggle? Collective bargaining has been won, apartheid has been vanquished. No longer is the POPCRU, in Marks’ words, a “dissident grouping.” What, then, distinguishes this “civil rights union” from a standard US police union? For Marks, this seems to be the wrong comparison. Just as the POPCRU functions as a “watchful eye” that propels the attenuation of police authoritarianism, so too can black political associations drive reform.

The US equivalent group would be the National Black Police Association. They oppose the death penalty, support affirmative action, and condemn police brutality. They aim to “to be the conscience of the criminal justice system, and to enhance the quality of life in the African-American community.” But the group does not unequivocally oppose the unconscionable War on Drugs, a caging frenzy so colossal that the US now imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa during apartheid.

Founded in 1972, just a year after Nixon launched the War on Drugs, the NBPA has been an anemic force for pacification. Over the same decades, the war has ravaged communities of color, the number of racial minorities and women on the beat has increased substantially, and the NBPA has been the “conscience of the criminal justice system.” That the increased presence of women and minorities on the force — laudable, no doubt — hasn’t fundamentally lessened the country’s system of social domination should sober enthusiasts of police reform.

To its credit, the AFL-CIO staked out a strong position against mass incarceration this year. In September, at the federation’s quadrennial convention, federation president Richard Trumka called it “a betrayal of the American promise.” He said, “the practice hurts our people and our communities, it keeps wages low, it suppresses democracy, and we can’t afford to imprison so many people. Nor can our families, our communities, or our country afford the loss of productivity of these people.” Trumka’s forceful statement, and the related resolution, were notable in that the federation’s largest union, AFSCME, counts prison guards among its members. No doubt mindful of this tension between social justice and narrow self-interest, the resolution chiefly indicted the private prison industry, charging “our nation’s profit-driven justice system [with] producing a level of mass incarceration that is anything but just.”

Admirable as the resolution was, it’s likely purely rhetorical, at best a suggestion that locals linked to the prison industrial complex change their tack. The AFL-CIO’s organizational structure is such that the federation has about as much power to compel an obdurate affiliate to change its behavior as a parent does with a grown child. As the AFL-CIO’s constitution states, member unions “are affiliated with, but are not subordinate to, or subject to the general direction and control of, the Federation.” The late journalist Robert Fitch believed this inscribed corruption in the very structure of organized labor. Corrupt or not, the independence of locals unquestionably constricts the federation’s ability to steer coercive unionism in a more constructive direction.

Socialists, recognizing the contradictions of the democratic capitalist state — by turns securer and seizer of freedom — can simultaneously love Medicare and loathe the NYPD. We recognize that, through struggle, workers have secured the occasional spot on what Marx called the executive committee of the bourgeoisie. Pro-labor liberals are in more treacherous territory. Unable to navigate the nuances and paradoxes of the public sector, their anti-austerity message is, “Don’t cut the jobs of teachers, firefighters, and police officers.” For them, the function of all three occupations is identical: to serve the public good.

Pro-labor liberals see a revanchist Tea Party and cuts in food stamps, and crouch to defend a monolithic state. They see a dying labor movement in which the number of union workers in the public sector now eclipses those in the private sector, or some cops standing against GOP attacks on collective bargaining rights, and they believe the police are their natural allies.

But they overlook whose class interests are served when police are dispatched, as compared to other government workers. Teachers teach, cops serve capital. The homeless man arrested for public intoxication has been treated more punitively than the Wall Street trader whose avarice breeds homelessness. This is the system the police, prison guards, and the border patrol maintain.

Becoming agents of progressive change would require that unions in these occupations negate their own power, that they work toward their own abolition. Absent this development, parochialism seems to be the only model that’s realistic in the here-and-now. Bargain for decent salaries and benefits. Accept the constraints that communities and elected officials impose. Act as professional associations, constituted strictly to advance member interests rather than social change or class struggle. Meanwhile, workers and organizers under the same union umbrella — AFSCME, primarily — can place internal pressure on their coercive counterparts in the hopes of smoothing out their worst traits.

But allies? Hardly. The cop who rallies for collective bargaining today will be protecting Goldman Sachs tomorrow.