Is there room in the labor movement for racist, Trump-supporting cops?
The single most loathsome figure associated with the NYPD is the head of its police union, who staunchly defends bad cops and fights reforms with inflammatory rhetoric. As the nationwide drumbeat of police killings and subsequent protests have grown in the past year or two, so too have calls—both formal and informal—for labor organizations to divorce themselves from unions of police and other law enforcement officers. The AFL-CIO has been asked to kick out the International Union of Police Associations. Last week, an immigrant activist group asked the AFL-CIO to kick out the National Border Patrol Council, a union of U.S. Border Patrol agents, after the union endorsed Donald Trump for president.
So far, the AFL-CIO has demurred. But the impulse to cast the cops out into the wilderness will not die out any time soon, as long as police unions serve as the primary institutions defending the behavior of racist, violent, or corrupt cops. Police unions do the things that unions are supposed to do (negotiate and enforce better pay and working conditions for their members), but some of them, at least, also do the thing that makes many people despise unions (protect bad actors at all costs).
What we have here is really a debate over what the labor movement is. Is the labor movement dedicated solely to the improvement of workers’ paychecks and working conditions, so that its focus is on helping union members and growing the ranks of union membership? Or is the labor movement the vanguard of the revolution, first and foremost a political movement, a group of working class people pushing to change the worst parts of our capitalist system? The AFL-CIO is a major force in electoral politics, thanks to its lobbying, donation, and ability to turn out the vote. But do we want it to be primarily a political organization? Or do we want it to focus solely on union issues and leave the larger social movements to someone else?
The honest answer, for most people, is “I want it to be a powerful political force on my side.” The idea of kicking the cops out of the labor movement has a delicious appeal at a time when police racism is more visible than ever. The idea of kicking the border patrol agents out of the labor movement for endorsing a racist xenophobe whose values would seem to be in direct contradiction to labor would be fun as hell. But such actions would set a dangerous and counterproductive precedent. If you kick out the cops for protecting bad members, you can be sure that a call to kick out teachers unions for the same thing is right around the corner. If you kick out the border patrol agents for endorsing Trump, you can be sure that the AFL-CIO’s internal Bernie vs. Hillary squabble will soon turn into a call to eject those who don’t toe the official endorsement line. Ultimately, kicking out unions that we dislike politically undermines the one thing that gives the labor movement its strength: unity.
You don’t have to like the members of a police union. You don’t have to like the redneck Border Patrol union members who endorsed Donald Trump. All you have to do is recognize that all of us—you, me, the Bernie partisans, the Hillary partisans, the teachers, the restaurant workers, the liberals, the racists, the fucking cops—have one thing in common: we are members of the working class. By standing together as a labor movement, we make the working class stronger. That in turn makes the world a fairer place. That is what class consciousness means. It doesn’t mean you have to like the people you stand with. It just means that you agree to settle your differences outside the bounds of the labor movement, the purpose of which is to support labor. The racist cop and the city worker waving a sign in a protest march against racist cops have a common enemy in economic inequality and unfairness. Whether we like it or not, purposely shrinking the ranks of labor organizations is counterproductive. (Likewise, police unions behaving so outrageously that they get kicked out of labor organizations is stupid.) We can all work together on something we have in common and then tell one another to go to hell when that work is done.
Some of the working class may consist of motherfuckers but that doesn’t mean we should let the rich win the class war.