Unions are good. Any look at union history in the U.S. or around the globe shows that unions bring workers higher pay, health benefits, retirement plans, better working conditions and better lives overall.
But unions, particularly in the U.S. also have a history of terrible racism, and extreme shortsightedness about how working will evolve in the future. Union leaders convince members to focus on benefits now. They’ve allowed corporations and political institutions to promise retirement plans, but then leave those plans unfunded. When the company or the municipality goes bankrupt, the promised, but unfunded, retirement plans simply disappear, leaving workers in the lurch.
As we watch our nation confront other aspects of our racist history, few union leaders, workers or racial justice activists are discussing the racist history of the union movement. But that racism allowed corporate interests to pit workers against each other along racial lines. That racism contributed to the problems that have bubbled to the surface in the past few weeks.
Unions are made up of people, who act as most people do on impulses as well as plans. The same impulse that drives us to sugary sodas on hot days drives us to want the biggest benefits (usually the biggest raise) right now, rather than some compensation deferred until years down the road. Instant gratification is a natural, constant human goal.
As we watch our nation confront other aspects of our racist history, few union leaders, workers or racial justice activists are discussing the racist history of the union movement.
But we know that instant gratification today helps lead to diabetes or heart disease years from now, the desire for an overpowered muscle car now leads to polluted air in short order.
Now, as we react to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, people are torn between desires for the instant gratification of quick action and strident demands, and the potential for looking down the road and thinking about changes that address the three mentioned murders in the context of a pattern of police murders that extend far far back beyond the chokehold killing of Eric Garner.
Before the Reagan Revolution, and the consolidation of most media under the control of a few corporations, journalism had a mantra: “Follow The Money”. Paying attention to who got and who lost the money led journalists to important truths. Precisely because of that, corporate controlled media generally is now forbidden to follow the money, too often even the “progressive” media ignores the money trail.
Look back at the Reagan Revolution. The messaging was that with the right economic policies, the money would “trickle down” to the poor and disempowered. The messaging was all advertising hype, while Reagan’s programs were all about making the money trickle (or flood) upwards to the people who already had most of it.
Advertising works. McDonalds keeps telling us, over and over, that we need fatty foods and sugary drinks. Repetition worked for Reagan’s policies. And repetition will work with ant-racism demonstrations. Messages have to be consistent, and repeated, over and over, and as constantly as McDonald’s ads. They teach people what to think about. Advertising delivers the money.
So we have been sold the idea that our police need to be militarized; that they need to handle school discipline problems; that they need ever more autonomy to wield punishments without charges in neighborhoods that “need” to be controlled. We are fed pro-police advertising while the police are fed ever large budgets, and ever greater legal protections from liability for their actions. And ever greater separation from the general population.
The job of police unions, like the job of any other unions, is to get the best deal possible for the union’s members. And, for decades, police unions have negotiated contracts which give their members good pay and benefits, and also the maximum protection from discipline or discharge that they can get. In essence, police union contracts are agreements between cities and states to protect and divide the police from the very people the police are supposed to protect. The police get paid well and the union takes part of that pay and turns it into donations for the politicians who sign off on the contracts.
Follow the money. Corporate interests also pay politicians to keep police strong, to keep them in control of “trouble” populations - which are always the poor and the identifiably “different,” different color, different nationality, different language. Those who “need” to be “controlled” don’t generally have money lying around. So they don’t contribute to the politicians in the same ways.
The result is the same as when unions for other trades, professions, etc. excluded non-white members, or non-cis-male members. The exclusions allowed power structures, corporate or civic, to pit workers against workers. The “battle lines” between police and protesters simply continues the old pattern - ensuring an impediment to workers with common interests from working together.
We also identify the police as special, both deserving and needing special protections from the people they are supposed to serve. They get special legal rights. On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its decades old policy that police officers have “qualified immunity” for the commission of even very serious crimes, IF those crimes are committed in the work of protecting special interests from the general masses of society.
In many situations, granting special privileges mean also imposing special responsibilities. But police unions, with the eager agreement of politicians, have turned this concept on its head. With special privileges, we take away responsibility for misuses of the privileges. And that is where there is an opportunity for change.
It is a tragic reality that those most likely to be brutalized by police are also those least likely to vote. But with large swaths of the population currently outraged by the extraordinary excesses of police, voting provides an opportunity for real, substantive change.
In states like California, where gerrymandering isn’t common, and where the worst voter suppression is by those voters who simply refuse to exercise their franchise, we have a progressive tool - the citizens’ initiative. Citizens, against the wishes of politicians and corporations, can pass legislation. It takes hard work and persistence. It delivers results over time, rather than instantly.
But imagine a citizens’ initiative that change California law to provide that, when a police union cooperates (conspires) with a city or state to protect officers from discipline or discharge for misconduct, that union becomes equally liable with the city or state for any damages, including punitive damages, imposed by a jury in a civil action against the officer(s), the city / state, and the union.
Follow the money! The police unions know that there is no cost in working hard to keep problem officers on the police payroll. The union keeps collecting dues, other members keep seeing what they can get away with. The union benefits financially when officers get away with crimes. A citizens’ initiative to impose shared liability on the union for their part in perpetuating police misconduct could take the profit out of defending problem officers. It could encourage police unions to press for better training for officers, training that would teach officers to not escalate situations to a point where misconduct seems the best resolution.
But unions are good. Even police unions can be good. The aim of progressives should not be vengeance for years of misconduct, but rather solutions to deter future conduct. Police unions should remain able to push for the best pay, benefits, training and retirement for their members. But when they let, or encourage, their members to cross the line, to abuse the special powers they have been granted, the unions should be held to account, they should pay the cost of misconduct by their members. They should be financially encouraged to stop defending officers who abuse their powers, while remaining able to defend those officers who honor their badges.