Police unions and the broader labor movement are marching in opposite directions. While many of America’s biggest labor organizations support the recent protests against policing practices, unions representing law enforcement officers have largely closed ranks, lashing out against voices calling for reform.
That the major law enforcement unions have openly bucked the prevailing rhetoric of the rest of the labor movement regarding the deaths two unarmed black men killed by police: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York reflects the historic tension between those who called strikes and those who enforced laws breaking them.
After Richard Trumka, president of the labor coalition AFL-CIO, co-signed an open letter to President Barack Obama regarding the “long list of black men and boys who have died under eerily similar circumstances” in August, he caught flak from police officers within the very coalition he oversees.
“In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York, the International Union of Police Associations withheld comment until facts were known,” wrote its president, Sam Cabral, in early December. “We wish the administration as well as the president of the AFL-CIO had been as thoughtful. I believe that anyone making pronouncements before knowing the facts has an agenda, not a position.”
Now tensions between police unions and the rest of the labor movement are likely to continue to rise, following the murder of two police officers in New York and the local police union’s subsequent denunciation of the city’s mayor.
The growing rupture within organized labor is a longstanding fissure. Unionized police officers have never sat comfortably within the broader labor movement, according to University of Toledo historian Joseph E. Slater. “There’s always been some contradictions,” he said.
The friction with police is almost as old as the labor movement itself. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, police were often called in to break up strikes, sometimes violently. When police sought their own union representation, some other members of the labor movement didn’t want to include the very people who were “busting heading heads in strikes,” Slater said.
The American Federation of Labor, which merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in 1955 decade to become the AFL-CIO, started letting police into its ranks in 1919. In September of that year, police in Boston went on strike and demanded union recognition. The strike failed disastrously — newspapers reported that criminals looted the city — and the nearly 75 percent of police who didn’t report for duty were dismissed.
It took another 46 years for the Boston police to unionize and the Boston police strike inspired a legislative backlash in many cities and states, according to Slater. Not until the middle of the 20th century did police unionism, and public sector unionism generally, became relatively commonplace.
The largest police union in the United States, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), came about in 1915, but it chose not to identify itself as a union. To this day, it is not affiliated with either the AFL-CIO or its counterpart, the Change to Win Federation. The International Union of Police Associations didn’t get its start until 1954, when it was known as the National Conference of Police Associations. It didn’t enter the AFL-CIO until 1979.
But by the 1950s and 1960s, organized labor in the United States evolved from being an insurgent protest movement to a state-sanctioned institution.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 had institutionalized the union formation and bargaining process, tamping down on the potential for violent confrontations between workers and management. Public sector unions were growing in influence. Yet the civil rights movement was also on the ascent, and racial tensions drove a wedge between law enforcement unions and other organized labor groups.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. sometimes expressed frustration with the conditional support that much of organized labor offered to the civil rights movement, that limited assistance was still more than some organized groups of police officers provided.
Temple University historian Heather Thompson said law enforcement unions tend to be defensive about their practices in urban areas where racial tensions are high.
“Anytime the police were in these situations where race relations were incredibly tense, they always said the city didn’t protect them,” she said. She pointed to police to the 1967 riot in Detroit, Michigan, which took place amid heightened tensions between the city government and the predominantly white police department.
“Police are always in this odd position, and you throw race on the fire and they close ranks,” she said. Some corrections officers, represented by the public sector union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, abandoned the union around the same time because “they felt law enforcement wasn’t adequately represented by the labor movement,” she said.
Slater said police are likely to see themselves as part of “somewhat paramilitary organizations, and there’s a little bit of an us-versus-the-outside-world mentality.” That means they’re more likely to identify as police first than as members of organized labor.
According to Thompson, the broader labor movement’s recent efforts to attract more people of color and address issues such as criminal justice reform is likely to put additional strain on its relationship with law enforcement unions.
“The broader AFL-CIO story with these unions is very complicated,” she said. “The unions on the one hand want to talk about mass incarceration, but they’ve got to be very careful.”
A spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO downplayed tension with police unions in an emailed statement.
“The AFL-CIO is like any family,” said spokeswoman Amaya Smith, “with 57 affiliated unions and a diversity of membership there is bound to be some disagreement.”