AFL-CIO Leader Richard Trumka Defends Police Unions by Comparing Them to Employers

Hamilton Nolan June 22, 2020

Trumka has defended the inclusion of police unions in the AFL-CIO. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the AFL-CIO strug­gles with a grow­ing debate over its align­ment with police unions, the dis­agree­ment inside of the labor coali­tion itself is becom­ing more point­ed. At an inter­nal meet­ing of the Exec­u­tive Coun­cil on Fri­day, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka spoke out against the idea of kick­ing police unions out of the coali­tion — con­fus­ing­ly, by com­par­ing them to the employ­ers that unions bar­gain against. 

In an exchange with a union pres­i­dent who spoke out force­ful­ly against the his­toric role of police as foes of labor, Trum­ka defend­ed the police as com­mu­ni­ty friend­ly,” and argued that if unions could learn to work with employ­ers to han­dle con­tentious issues, they should be able to do the same with cops and their unions.

Since the begin­ning of the ongo­ing nation­wide protests against police vio­lence, there has been a heat­ed dis­cus­sion about what role police unions should play in the labor move­ment. Many pro­gres­sives want to sev­er ties with police unions alto­geth­er, while oth­ers — par­tic­u­lar­ly pub­lic-sec­tor union lead­ers, who fear that any attacks on police unions will trans­late into attacks on all col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in the pub­lic sec­tor — coun­sel mod­er­a­tion and engage­ment” with police unions to push var­i­ous reforms. 

The AFL-CIO, a coali­tion of 55 unions rep­re­sent­ing 12.5 mil­lion mem­bers, has found itself in the cen­ter of the con­tro­ver­sy. On June 8 — a week after the AFL-CIO’s Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters was burned dur­ing a protest — the Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca, East, an AFL-CIO mem­ber union, passed a for­mal res­o­lu­tion call­ing on the AFL-CIO to dis­af­fil­i­ate from the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Police Asso­ci­a­tions, the coalition’s police union mem­ber. (I am one of the 21 WGAE coun­cil mem­bers who vot­ed on the resolution). 

The lead­er­ship of the AFL-CIO received the res­o­lu­tion unen­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly. They imme­di­ate­ly put out a state­ment say­ing that they take a dif­fer­ent view when it comes to the call for the AFL-CIO to cut ties with IUPA. …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.” Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Liz Shuler, Trumka’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, advo­cat­ed instead devel­op­ing codes of excel­lence” to encour­age police unions to change from within.

But the issue has not dis­ap­peared. Union locals and pro­gres­sive fac­tions with­in larg­er unions have tak­en up the call. The King Coun­ty Labor Coun­cil expelled the Seat­tle police union last week, and even SEIU leader Mary Kay Hen­ry, the head of the most pow­er­ful union out­side of the AFL-CIO, said that dis­af­fil­i­a­tion must be con­sid­ered” if police unions don’t reform. Last Fri­day, the pro­pos­al from the Writ­ers Guild received its first seri­ous and direct dis­cus­sion at a meet­ing of the AFL-CIO’s exec­u­tive coun­cil, the elect­ed body that gov­erns the group. 

Accord­ing to a source who was on that call who asked to remain anony­mous due to the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of inter­nal delib­er­a­tions, Mark Dimond­stein, the head of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union, raised the issue, say­ing that the AFL-CIO would even­tu­al­ly have no choice but to deal with the issue head on. Cit­ing the WGAE’s res­o­lu­tion, Dimond­stein said that the AFL-CIO need­ed to grap­ple with irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences” between police unions and oth­er union mem­bers, because the role of police is to pro­tect cor­po­rate pow­er, not the pow­er of work­ing peo­ple. He called for Trum­ka to dis­trib­ute the res­o­lu­tion to the Exec­u­tive Coun­cil for fur­ther dis­cus­sion at a future meet­ing, and then voiced his own opin­ion that any police who beat union mem­bers could not be his broth­er or sister.” 

In response, Trum­ka, who was lead­ing the meet­ing, pushed back against some of Dimondstein’s points. Trum­ka, a for­mer leader of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers, said that he had seen anti-work­er police vio­lence in the min­ing indus­try, but argued that many police offi­cers today are com­mu­ni­ty friend­ly.” He also dis­agreed with Dimondstein’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of labor’s dif­fer­ences with police as irrec­on­cil­able.”

I’d just point out that we have irrec­on­cil­able dif­fer­ences with every employ­er we deal with, yet we deal with them,” Trum­ka said. He told Dimond­stein that in the same way that unions use col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing to deal with employ­ers, so, too, could orga­nized labor use the process to nar­row” dif­fer­ences with police unions. 

The dis­agree­ment shows that the dis­pute over the AFL-CIO’s affil­i­a­tion with police is not going away, and that an inter­nal bat­tle may be loom­ing. Also note­wor­thy is Trumka’s some­what baf­fling com­par­i­son of police unions to employ­ers, as an argu­ment against dis­af­fil­i­a­tion — an argu­ment that would seem to imply that police unions are an oppo­nent to be bar­gained against.

Employ­ers, of course, are not part of the AFL-CIO.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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