On Sunday night, the Washington DC headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, was set aflame. Its windows were smashed in, and a prized collection of art depicting the plight of the American worker was likely damaged. A gold inscription on its 16th Street entrance was painted over with the words “Black Lives Matter.”
As the lobby burned, one Washington Post reporter tweeted that they heard bystanders urge those smashing the windows to reconsider: “No, stop! Unions are good!” and “Aw, man, not the union!”
It’s unknown what the motive was, or whether there was a motive at all for burning the headquarters of the country’s most influential labor organization, which represents millions of working-class people of color who are targets of police violence. But the act has raised important questions about where the AFL-CIO and other unions stand when it comes to police brutality.
In recent days, dozens of labor unions have denounced and protested the murder of George Floyd, a recently laid off bouncer, at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Union bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York City have refused to transport police officers or take arrested protesters to jail. But certain unions play an important role in perpetuating police brutality and can be directly linked to the killing of Floyd.
The AFL-CIO, for one, is affiliated with the International Union of Police Associations (IUAP), which represents and protects more than 100,000 law enforcement officers in the United States. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Writers Guild of America East, which is also an affiliate of the AFL-CIO and shows the breadth of the organization).
The Washington Post reported that 450 of more than 1,800 officers who had been fired for misconduct between 2017 and 2007 were reinstated due to protections in their union contracts. Last year, for example, a New York City police union advocated for the reinstatement of Daniel Pantaleo, an officer who was fired for his involvement in the 2014 killing of Eric Garner. Two of those four officers involved in Floyd’s death have numerous misconduct complaints against them.
Police unions are not like other labor unions in many ways, a major one being that they often provide members with tools to inflict violence and then ensure they are never held accountable for their actions. The four officers involved in Floyd’s death were part of a powerful union, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, that has provided officers with free “warrior-style” training, which has been tied to police killings around the country. A recent study of Florida sheriff’s deputies found that violent incidents increased by 45 percent when officers won the right to collectively bargain.
Tensions between police unions and the rest of the labor movement are not new. In 2015, the union representing 13,000 University of California teaching assistants and student workers called on the AFL-CIO to sever ties with the IAUP, arguing the police serve to protect the interests of the powerful, and actively target the communities of rank-and-file workers. Meanwhile, cop unions have spoken out against #BlackLivesMatter protests.
On Monday, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka denounced the burning of the AFL-CIO headquarters in a press statement as “senseless” and “disgraceful,” but noting that the fight for racial justice and the labor movement is more important than any building. “In the end, the labor movement is not a building,” he said. “We are a living collection of working people who will never stop fighting for economic, social and racial justice.”
(Trumka told Motherboard that last night’s “damage was contained to the exterior and first floor,” and Labor is Life, a 71-foot gold, glass, and marble mural prized by labor art historians, remains intact.)
But unsurprisingly, neither Trumka nor other top labor leaders have come forward to denounce the role of police unions in police killings. And it’s increasingly clear that Trumka must disaffiliate with the IUAP for the AFL-CIO’s commitment to protect millions of working-class members.
In the coming days and months, unions can play an important role in building a better future for workers and people of color. But while police unions inflict violence on working-class communities of color, that day can’t fully arrive until organized labor groups disaffiliate with and denounce police unions.