United Auto Workers Local 2865, the union representing 13,000 teaching assistants and other student workers throughout the University of California, called on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) in a resolution passed by its governing body on July 25.
The resolution came in the wake of a letter written by the UAW’s Black Interests Coordinating Committee (BICC). The group formed in December 2014 in response to the acquittals of police officers in the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and is largely inspired by recent actions in the Black Lives Matter movement. With the letter, BICC aims to “start a really difficult conversation that the labor movement has had in the past and needs to continue to have around the intersections of race and labor, economic privation and racial disparity,” according to BICC member Brandon Buchanan, a graduate student currently studying Sociology at UC Davis who serves as Head Steward.
The letter charges that police associations operate in ways that are antithetical to the mission statement of the AFL-CIO, particularly its stated goal “to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; [and] to vanquish oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms.”
It provides historical evidence to its allegations, saying, “Police unions in particular emerge out of a long history of police intervention in labor politics and its complicity in racial violence,” before referencing deadly disputes with activist workers in the 19th century, the defense of Jim Crow segregation, the lobbying that enabled the circumstances of Freddie Gray’s death and the crackdown on the Occupy movement across the country as examples of American police acting as a “violent supressive force.”
The letter was presented by Buchanan on behalf of BICC to the joint council of UAW Local 2865, the local’s governing board. According to Buchanan, the letter and its call to the AFL-CIO were endorsed overwhelmingly.
“The AFL-CIO is an enormous part of the labor movement. It has a lot of say, it influences elections, it is an organization which serves to build a lot of solidarity between a number of different unions,” Buchanan told In These Times. “But at the same time, one of the things that we noticed is that it also has these police associations which are a part of it—police associations who have consistently worked not necessarily in the interest of workers, in particular black workers, but instead have upheld a capitalist status quo as well as white supremacy.”
The endorsed letter echoes the sentiment made by Shawn Gude last year at Jacobin:
When there’s mass resistance to poverty and inequality, it’s the cops who are summoned to calm the panic-stricken hearts of the elite. They bash some heads, or infiltrate and disrupt some activist groups, and all is right in the world again.
Such is the inherent defect of law-enforcement unionism: It’s peopled by those with a material interest in maintaining and enlarging the state’s most indefensible practices.
Earlier this year, in an article entitled “Blood On Their Hands: The Racist History of Modern Police Unions,” human rights attorney Flint Taylor gave an overview of such sordid practices for In These Times.
Buchanan says that while the endorsement came with an overwhelming majority of the governing board voting in favor, there was concern from certain members who questioned whether the endorsement would alienate those who had relationships with people in the police force.
“This is not about individuals. We’re not talking about or calling out individual people. We’re calling out structures of power,” Buchanan stresses in response. “We’re not saying that [police officers] are individually bad. But what we’re talking about is things like vilifying black bodies to protect police officers who brutalize and kill black people and then get away with it with the support of these police associations.”
UAW 2865’s governing body made similar waves with its activist streak last year when it became the first American local to endorse the global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
While numerous American unions have held actions against police brutality in the past year (such as the May Day port shutdowns by ILWU Local 10 in Oakland and ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina), UAW 2865 is the first local to explicitly call for disassociation between police unions and the rest of organized labor currently operating under the umbrella of the national federation.
In a story detailing the history of police unions and organized labor for Al Jazeera America in December, Ned Resnikoff reported that an AFL-CIO spokesperson downplayed any tension between the two sides, saying, “The AFL-CIO is like any family. … With 57 affiliated unions and a diversity of membership there is bound to be some disagreement.”
Buchanan believes that disaffiliation between the AFL-CIO and IUPA would mean that the IUPA would lose legitimacy as an organization and thus transfer AFL-CIO support from police associations and instead towards people of color and their communities, who he says have been traditionally locked out of organizing spaces.
“It’s a question of legitimacy. Having [the AFL-CIO] disaffiliate demonstrates that if our union organizing is meant to address the interests of workers—and black workers are included in that—then these police associations are inimical to those interests,” Buchanan says.
Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.