Organizing Against Police Unions Has Invigorated Hollywood’s Labor Movement, Members Say

Alice Herman

Hollywood Boulevard is painted with the words "All Black Lives Matter" as protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death on June 13, 2020 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The labor move­ment is split on the ques­tion of cops. While union offi­cials have sig­naled their tem­pered sup­port for police unions, the push to expel law enforce­ment from the move­ment has grown quick­ly in the rank-and-file. 

The Writ­ers Guild of Amer­i­ca, East (WGAE) led the way with a June 8 res­o­lu­tion urg­ing the AFL-CIO to drop the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Police Asso­ci­a­tions (IUPA). Nine days lat­er, the Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Coun­ty Labor Coun­cil, an AFL-CIO region­al affil­i­ate, vot­ed to expel the Seat­tle Police Offi­cers Guild from the coali­tion. Union shops rep­re­sent­ing post­doc researchers and teach­ing assis­tants have since passed res­o­lu­tions demand­ing police union dis­af­fil­i­a­tion from the AFL-CIO, and a coali­tion of work­ers with­in the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) have put for­ward a sim­i­lar call to expel its police union affiliates. 

Except the WGAE, no nation­al unions with­in the AFL-CIO have posi­tioned them­selves against police unions beyond call­ing for the IUPA—a union rep­re­sent­ing over 100,000 offi­cers across the Unit­ed States — to reform itself. But a move­ment is brew­ing in two large Hol­ly­wood unions.

With­in the ranks of two unions rep­re­sent­ing the­ater and enter­tain­ment work­ers — Inter­na­tion­al Alliance of The­atri­cal Stage Employ­ees (IATSE) and the Screen Actors Guild — Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Tele­vi­sion and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) — the push to kick police out of the AFL-CIO has bal­looned in the span of a few weeks, with mem­bers of each union say­ing that the effort has pushed them to con­sid­er, some for the first time, the pow­er they pos­sess as union­ized workers.

Tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from the WGAE, Nicholas Mon­sour, a tele­vi­sion and film edi­tor cred­it­ed on Us” and The Twi­light Zone,” wrote a peti­tion urg­ing his union, IATSE, to pass a res­o­lu­tion call­ing for the ouster of police unions from the AFL-CIO. The peti­tion has been shared wide­ly on social media, gar­ner­ing hun­dreds of sig­na­tures and bring­ing togeth­er a coali­tion of IATSE mem­bers orga­niz­ing around the drop cops” campaign. 

Anoth­er edi­tor rep­re­sent­ed by IATSE, who pre­ferred not to be named for fear of retal­i­a­tion from the Los Ange­les Police Depart­ment, says he joined the cam­paign because he has seen the police indis­crim­i­nate­ly tar­get Black peo­ple and “[has] rel­a­tives who have been mis­treat­ed by the police.”

There’s IATSE mem­bers who actu­al­ly get mis­treat­ed by the police, and I think we should look out for them,” he says. Being a per­son of col­or in IATSE, I love being a union mem­ber, I love the ben­e­fits and my cowork­ers, and I would love more if we used our pow­er to make the com­mu­ni­ty a bet­ter place.”

He adds, I’m very encour­aged to see these actions hap­pen­ing, and I hope that union lead­er­ship lis­tens to its grassroots.”

Mem­bers say the push has also had the sec­ondary effect of pulling union mem­bers into union pol­i­tics who might not have par­tic­i­pat­ed oth­er­wise; in the fight for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, rank-and-file mem­bers have found and exer­cised their union power. 

The cul­ture when I joined [was] a lit­tle bit sleepy,” Mon­sour says. I’m a dues pay­ing mem­ber who has occa­sion­al­ly got­ten slight­ly more involved in our dis­cus­sions and meet­ings around con­tract nego­ti­a­tions but I’ve nev­er sought any posi­tions or any­thing with­in the guild, the union.”

Through the cam­paign, inter­est in the struc­ture and lead­er­ship of the orga­ni­za­tion has grown among mem­bers who were less involved in union pol­i­tics before this month. 

I wasn’t day-to-day involved in Local 700 stuff, but … know­ing that IATSE is part of the AFL-CIO and that [the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Police Asso­ci­a­tions] is part of AFL-CIO too, a lot of this is def­i­nite­ly new to me,” said edi­tor and pro­duc­er John Cantú. 

Every­one that I’ve been in touch with has been just like me, where they had no idea that IATSE was part of the AFL-CIO and that police unions were also tied into that.” 

Alex­is Simp­son, an actor and mem­ber of SAG-AFTRA, says that the par­al­lel push with­in her union has yield­ed a com­pa­ra­bly strong increase in union activism. I would say I’m prob­a­bly more engaged in union stuff than most of the mem­ber­ship. And that’s not say­ing much … the num­ber of peo­ple [to whom] I have said, Hey, did you know that we’re affil­i­at­ed with the police unions?’ who are like, What? I did not know that.’ It is wak­ing them up to learn­ing more about their union, at least at that ini­tial level.” 

In each union, mem­bers start­ed their respec­tive cam­paigns by cir­cu­lat­ing peti­tions. While gath­er­ing sig­na­to­ries and con­nect­ing with inter­est­ed mem­bers, the mem­ber-orga­niz­ers simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pres­sured lead­er­ship to take a posi­tion against police unions. Mem­bers of each orga­ni­za­tion say they have coor­di­nat­ed efforts on inter­nal mes­sage boards and launched inter­nal cam­paigns to demon­strate pop­u­lar sup­port for expelling the police from the labor move­ment. Mean­while, SAG-AFTRA mem­ber-orga­niz­ers have part­nered with Col­or of Change, an orga­ni­za­tion that has ral­lied against racism in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and media.

There’s prece­dent for the action they are call­ing for: In 1957, the AFL-CIO expelled the Team­sters from the fed­er­a­tion for cor­rup­tion and uneth­i­cal prac­tices.

Both SAG-AFTRA and IATSE have issued state­ments in response to the mur­der of George Floyd at the hands of the Min­neapo­lis Police Depart­ment and the move­ment to end police bru­tal­i­ty that has ensued. But nei­ther has gone so far as to actu­al­ly call for the expul­sion of police from the AFL-CIO. 

A June 11 state­ment from SAG-AFTRA calls on police unions to dis­man­tle the struc­tures they have erect­ed that have been used to pro­tect offi­cers who engage in racial­ly tar­get­ed vio­lence, racial pro­fil­ing, and oth­er racist and unlaw­ful con­duct towards Black and oth­er cit­i­zens of this coun­try.” It’s an argu­ment that mir­rors the log­ic of AFL-CIO’s orig­i­nal state­ment on police bru­tal­i­ty by con­demn­ing dis­crete acts of vio­lence while main­tain­ing that the police unions are capa­ble of chang­ing course. 

But cop unions have long formed an ardent oppo­si­tion to police reform, pro­vid­ing legal cov­er for killer cops and quash­ing efforts to increase trans­paren­cy. And IUPA react­ed to the labor federation’s state­ment on police reform with out­rage: In a let­ter to AFL-CIO pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka, Sam Cabral, the head of IUPA, called the idea that bru­tal­i­ty is endem­ic to polic­ing ridicu­lous.”

Lead­ers of the 55 unions in the AFL-CIO have skirt­ed the ques­tion of expelling cop unions from the labor move­ment or out­ward­ly reject­ed the idea. But as calls from the rank-and-file grow, so will the pres­sure for their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in unions rep­re­sent­ing work­ers across indus­tries, to respond.

Alice Her­man is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fel­low, as well as a writer based in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, where she works at a restau­rant. She con­tributes reg­u­lar­ly to Isth­mus, Madison’s alt-week­ly, and The Pro­gres­sive magazine.

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