This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into a law a bill aimed at making it much harder for public employee unions to exist and function. Watching a Republican governor with his eye on the White House aim a crude legislative club at public unions is a familiar sight. Rather than dwelling on why DeSantis is an oily bum, let us use this opportunity to discuss another, unseen villain in this sickening process: police unions.
The Florida bill — which bans automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks and decertifies unions when their membership drops below 60% of the workforce — is aimed primarily at weakening the state’s teachers union, which represents some of DeSantis’s strongest political opposition. Versions of these tactics have become common in red states. And there was another aspect of the bill that we’ve seen before: it exempts police and firefighter unions. By leaving out the only unions that tend to be Republican constituencies, DeSantis is showing that he knows the bill is meant purely to harm unions, even as he mouths words about fairness in the workplace.
When the Black Lives Matter protests were going strong in 2020, police unions came under a lot of criticism. My own union, the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), formally asked the AFL-CIO to expel police unions, a call that was echoed throughout many of the progressive corners of the labor movement. That surge of opposition was driven by many people thinking about the role that police unions played in protecting bad cops and enabling the very sort of violent abuses of power that the protesters in the streets were decrying. Union members across the country were marching against injustice, and police union members were beating them up. That didn’t make a lot of sense. As the WGAE resolution said, “police unions are incompatible with the AFL-CIO’s stated goals: ‘to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms.’”
The AFL-CIO ignored us, and supported the inclusion of police unions as a part of the broader labor movement. Leadership brushed the issue under the rug, and waited for public attention to dissipate. Which it has. If we allow our objections to police unions to rest solely on the fact that they enable police abuses, then the salience of the issue will just ebb and flow with the news cycle. We need to focus on the more important structural reason why we can’t allow cops in our movement: Because they inherently undermine the very solidarity that gives organized labor its power. And you won’t find any better illustration of that than what just happened in Florida.
Everyone understood that the bill was designed to harm the teachers union. Getting each member to write a check for dues instead of having it deducted is an enormous hassle that will harm the union’s treasury. Forcing the union to prove it has 60% membership every year is an enormous logistical burden that exists only to allow the government to eradicate teachers unions where they already exist.
Anyone who is a member of any union, public or private sector, understands the ways that unions benefit their members. All unions are part of the common labor movement, and represent the common belief that workers should have power. That is why all unions, no matter who they represent, will zealously defend the basic right of other unions to exist. It’s basic class consciousness. A threat to one is a threat to all. I am not a teacher, but of course my union would stand up for the right of teachers to have a union, and not to have it oppressed by the government. Particularly, you understand, if my own union was somehow included in a bill that was simultaneously meant to undermine and weaken another union.
So — finding themselves specifically exempted from the Florida bill that was designed to destroy their fellow public employee unions — did law enforcement unions stand up and speak out against this outrageous threat to union rights? No. No they did not. They all fucking endorsed Ron DeSantis. (The Florida Education Association has already filed a lawsuit against the new bill. The FEA confirmed that they did have conversations with the law enforcement unions about opposing the bill, but did not get their support.)
Unions disagree on all types of things. They have different memberships. They have different priorities. Some are conservative and some are liberal. But the one thing that all unions should agree on is that every worker deserves a union. Every union should be willing to speak up when access to unions is under attack. And, in general, every union does.
Except police unions.
The bitterest irony of all is that major public unions like the American Federation of Teachers or AFSCME have always been unwilling to support measures cracking down on police unions, because they fear that any support for restraining public unions will be used against their own members. Okay. How’s that working out?
Now the teachers in Florida are getting railroaded, and the cops are exempt, and the cops are just fine with it. That is unconscionable. There should be zero doubt in any honest labor leader’s mind that police unions would happily stand by while every other union in America was crushed — as long as they were okay themselves. Kicking police unions out of the AFL-CIO would not deny cops the basic right to unionize. It would just prevent the police unions from drawing on the power that the solidarity of the entire labor movement gives them, and then spitting in the face of the rest of the labor movement when it is time to show some solidarity back to us.
For the past week, I have been walking picket lines with members of the Writers Guild who are on strike. The solidarity has been incredible. The actors of SAG-AFTRA are out there every day. So are the TV and film workers in IATSE. The truck drivers in the Teamsters have routinely refused to cross our picket lines, shutting down a number of TV productions. I’ve seen teachers and musicians and laborers wearing their own union shirts and carrying picket signs next to us. They do so not for personal gain, but because they understand solidarity. It is an incredibly heartening experience.
Have I seen any police unions? Ha. Funny. Of course not. Never. Yesterday, on a picket line in Brooklyn, one cop showed up in his official capacity, to keep an eye on things. I had been contemplating this column, so as I marched past him, I hollered out, “Where’s your union? Why aren’t you out here?” He smiled at me and gave a friendly laugh, as if I was kidding.
No, man. I was serious. But I can see why you wouldn’t think so. You’re in a police union. Worker solidarity is one big joke to you.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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