Police unions become target of labor activists

LOS ANGELES: Supporters of the Los Angeles Police Protective League gather at Los Angeles City Hall in 2014. Al Seib/Los Angeles Times

It was a far cry from "defund the police," but the response was severe anyway. In 2019, Steve Fletcher, a first-term member of the Minneapolis City Council, decided to oppose a budget proposal to add more officers to the Police Department.

Business owners soon started calling Fletcher, who represents part of downtown, complaining of slow police responses to 911 calls about shoplifting. Store owners told Fletcher the officers who eventually responded had a message: "We'd love to help you with this, but our hands are tied by the council; talk to your council member," Fletcher said in an interview.

Fletcher suspected the hand of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, which supported the budget proposal. The federation, like many police unions, has been a vocal and formidable force in city politics. (The federation did not respond to requests for comment, and a police spokesman called Fletcher's allegation of a slowdown "false and emphatically untrue.")

But after a Minneapolis officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd for more than eight minutes, killing him – unleashing a national protest movement that has yielded criminal charges against him and the other three officers on the scene – the police union, like many others, has become a target for otherwise labor-friendly liberals like Fletcher who see them as major obstacles to reform.

"I've been a labor organizer and a union member who's gone on strike, so I have a deep history with the labor movement, was born into a labor family," Fletcher said. But when it comes to police unions, after his experience in Minneapolis, he now thinks "there need to be real constraints around what can be bargained."

Many activists have called for legal reforms to limit police collective-bargaining agreements and union-backed laws that limit transparency into misconduct or make it harder to fire officers for wrongdoing.

Some union contracts allow departments to erase disciplinary records, give officers access to investigative records before they are questioned or allow the officers to essentially prevent their departments from publicly releasing internal records – making it easier for officers to beat misconduct charges or to prevent the public from knowing about them.

One University of Chicago Law School working paper from 2019 on newly unionized sheriff's deputies in Florida concluded that "collective bargaining rights led to about a 40% increase in violent incidents of misconduct among sheriffs' offices."

The labor movement in the U.S. is facing questions about what its relationship should be with the hundreds of thousands of police officers who make up a major portion of unionized public-sector workers. The AFL-CIO has faced growing calls to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Assns., and some liberal activists have started calling for Democratic politicians to reject campaign contributions from police unions.

"Even for people who have a deep long-standing genuine commitment to the labor movement … there's a recognition that the power of unionization, the power of collective bargaining is being abused in indefensible ways by police unions," said Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and faculty director of the school's labor and work-life program, which will be studying potential legal reforms to collective bargaining by police.

Police officers are heavily unionized compared with many private-sector workers, and they have enjoyed generally high approval ratings from the public compared with other government services. Police unions can also be a big spending force in political campaigns, like in Los Angeles, giving them influence before they even reach the bargaining table.

Like many unions, police officers' leaders are unapologetic advocates for their members, often willing to wage bare-knuckle political fights, including during the recent wave of protests. But unlike many unions, police unions' members have the power to arrest and kill, and their central role in public safety gives them immense — and sometimes intimidating — leverage.

In New York City, the Sergeants Benevolent Association violated Twitter's rules when it tweeted private arrest-record information about Mayor Bill de Blasio's daughter, Chiara, after she was arrested at a May 30 protest, adding, "How can the NYPD protect the city of NY from rioting anarchists when the Mayor's object throwing daughter is one of them?" (She had not been accused of throwing anything.) The account had also recently tussled with the city's health commissioner over a lack of masks for officers, at one point tweeting that she "has blood on her hands."

In Delaware County, Pa., the local police union posted a warning to potential critics on June 3: "If you choose to speak out against the police or our members, we will do everything in our power to not support your business." (The union later apologized for the comment.) One member was reportedly suspended from the Media Borough Police Department when he added, "Try us. We'll destroy you."

After the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said last week it would no longer transport local police to anti-police-brutality protests, the officers' union, the San Francisco Police Officers Association, shot back on Twitter, "Hey Muni, lose our number next time you need officers for fare evasion enforcement or removing problem passengers from your buses and trains."

Floyd's death became a breaking point for many labor supporters. As protests swelled in Seattle, the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council, which represents more than 100,000 area union workers, passed a resolution demanding that its affiliated Seattle Police Officers Guild "become an anti-racist organization" and acknowledge "that racism is a structural problem in our society and in law enforcement" or risk a vote of expulsion.

"It is absolutely incumbent upon us to seek justice for black workers and black families in America," said Nicole Grant, the council's executive secretary-treasurer, "and we have to be able to have every union leader say 'Black lives matter' and back it up with their actions, and that's the moment we're in."

But higher-ranking labor leaders, including some who are black, have generally been reluctant to take on the calls for outright disaffiliation, instead preferring to work on reforms from the inside.

When it comes to police violence, "we're disproportionately impacted," said April Sims, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, who is black. But Sims believes every worker has the right to belong to a union. She adds, though, that "the police unions could do lot to move their institutions to becoming more anti-racist."

In a resolution adopted June 9 by AFL-CIO's general board, the federation declared it would not disaffiliate from its police unions. "We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them," the resolution said, adding: "Disengagement breeds division, not unity. This is a moment to do what is hard and meaningful and uncomfortable. And that requires building a better labor movement from within."

The largest union representing police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, took umbrage at arguments that their collective-bargaining agreements fostered police brutality.

"A contract is a binding agreement between two parties who mutually agreed on the terms, not a mandate imposed by a labor union," its president, Patrick Yoes, said in a statement. "To suggest that law enforcement managers are forced into agreements with provisions they find unacceptable is at variance with common sense."

Which makes Minneapolis city officials' actions this week significant: The city has withdrawn from collective bargaining with its police union, whose officers have been working under an expired contract.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo announced "that he is taking an intentional pause from the contract negotiations with the Federation," police spokesman John Elder said by email Saturday. "They will be bringing in a national agency to review the contract to ensure it is serving those it is meant to be served by."

Fletcher thinks the move might violate labor laws requiring the city to bargain, but the position he supports – dismantling the existing Police Department and rethinking criminal justice in the city – would defang its police union. There's no such thing as a union without members, after all.

"The right thing to do is to stop funding an institution that is causing our city a great deal of harm and does not seem to be reformable," Fletcher said.

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