Unions: Where do we go from here?

July 30, 2020

Over the past few weeks, I have seen unrest throughout this country that can only be described as monumental. With the majority of protesters doing their best to avoid conflict and remain peaceful, their demands to end systemic racial injustice and police brutality are finally being heard. Our nation now needs to come together and mobilize these demands in to real social change. Historically, no one knows better than the labor movement how to organize around a common goal but as of 2020 only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, and labor laws bar a number of workers (particularly those who are classified as independent contractors or who are undocumented) from fundamental labor protections. Now the police are beginning to exploit this protection and have begun ruling with impunity.

While the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor happened in other cities, local labor activists claim that the Seattle Police Department has dodged accountability for at least 30 killings that have happened in Seattle over the last decade. One reason why police officers do not typically face serious repercussions for killing unarmed victims or using excessive force is that police union contracts shield them, circumventing civilian oversight and allowing officers fired for police brutality to be hired by other departments. Thus, collective bargaining agreements for police unions can serve as an unbreachable firewall between the police and those they have injured. While the right to collectively bargain is held sacred in the labor movement, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (“SPOG”) has come under calls of abusing that right.

The long festering issue was brought to a head in recent weeks after Black and Brown union members circulated a petition to the Martin Luther King County Labor Council (“MLK Labor Council”) calling for SPOG’s expulsion and making an ultimatum: “It is us or them. We cannot and will not be part of an organization that includes our killers…The [MLK] Labor Council must stand in solidarity with workers, particularly those who have been historically sacrificed by the labor movement—namely, Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” The petition goes on to state that “[p]olice unions like SPOG obstruct accountability and justice by demanding protections from disciplinary procedures, which is an abuse of the right to collectively bargain…Unions are meant to protect workers and their labor. By including SPOG as a member, the [MLK] Labor Council is legitimizing the idea that police officers’ labor is justifiable at the cost of the lives of Black and Brown people.”

In response to the petition, the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted on June 17, 2020 to remove the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) from its ranks, citing a need for antiracist practices. The vote was relatively close with several unions speaking in favor of SPOG. If the police are to be defunded and reigned in, their unions need to be split off and isolated from the rest of organized labor. With these unions maintaining a common front, they will almost certainly be able to resist any meaningful efforts to restrain them. The only hope in enacting real change is dialogue. An open discourse between both sides where each party is being heard. It is unfortunate that it has taken the death of an innocent man to finally open people’s eyes to the systemic INjustice that drives our justice system but it is time that we funnel this anger and aggression to protest peacefully with the hope that unification and a common goal can finally bring equality to this corrupt system.