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labor National Labor Groups Mostly Close Ranks to Defend Police Unions

While some in the labor movement are seeking to distance themselves, most are supportive even as they call for reforms.

Protesters gather near police during a rally against the death of George Floyd in New York on May 28, 2020.,Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

National protests against police brutality and mistreatment of Black Americans have prompted new criticism of police unions, which for years have negotiated contracts that critics say help protect members from punishmentsuppress complaint records and weaken civilian oversight boards.

The renewed spotlight on those unions has placed other national labor leaders in the increasingly uncomfortable position of defending their right to organize while largely staying quiet on the complicated topic of police unions.

This week, after two Atlanta police officers were charged in the death of Rayshard Brooks — who was shot in the back after clashing with an officer over a stun gun, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds — the local police union confirmed that many members were participating in work slowdowns and sick-outs.

Describing officers as “fed up,” Vince Champion, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said that officers are “protesting that they’ve had enough and they don’t want to deal with it any longer.”

While most labor leaders have chosen to keep silent on police union actions, some have begun speaking out for change.

The Writers Guild of America, East, part of the umbrella labor group AFL-CIO, startled many in organized labor earlier this month when it announced a resolution calling for the International Union of Police Associations to be kicked out of the federation. The resolution ignited a firestorm in the labor world, triggering a larger conversation on whether the labor movement should align with law enforcement unions.

Although IUPA is the AFL-CIO’s main police union, several other unions in the federation also have members who work in police departments and correctional facilities. Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with second-degree murder in George Floyd’s death, was a member of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis union, which is not affiliated with any larger labor organization.

The Writers Guild’s resolution declared that police unions “wield their collective bargaining power as a cudgel, preventing reforms and accountability” and that the IUPA has policies and activities that “are consistently directed ­toward the achievement of the program or purposes of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, [and] terrorism.”

Much of organized labor recoiled and quickly closed ranks to defend collective bargaining. Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees —wrote an op-ed article in USA Today that described attacks on police unions as attacks on all of labor. AFSCME represents around 90,000 law enforcement officers.

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“Everyone should have the freedom to join a union, police officers included,” Saunders wrote. “The tragic killing of George Floyd should not be used as a pretext to undermine the rights of workers.”

Later that day, the AFL-CIO General Board published recommendations on police reform but also shot down the idea of disaffiliating the police union. In a statement, the board said the best way to address police brutality is to “engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.”

“It would be quick and easy to cut ties with police unions,” the statement added. “But disengagement breeds division, not unity.”

NBC News reached out to all 55 of the AFL-CIO affiliated unions to discuss their stance on calls to expel the police union from the AFL-CIO.

Unions including the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Transport Workers Union of America and United Steelworkers declined to comment. IUPA did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the AFL-CIO headquarters. IUPA also did not publish any general statements about Floyd’s killing in the weeks following nationwide protests.

No responses were received from larger national unions such as United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, UNITE HERE and United Auto Workers. These unions are typically very vocal on labor issues but have sidestepped calls with reporters on the topic of police unions.

In a statement, the Utility Workers Union of America said that any decision to expel an affiliate union would have to go through “a collective, democratic process.” In a brief statement, the United Mine Workers of America said it viewed the debate around the police union “as an internal AFL-CIO matter that should be discussed and decided within the house of labor, not in the media.”

Some union leaders, however, spoke up about the frustration they felt about police unions but still hoped that reform could happen from within the labor movement. All union leaders NBC News spoke to were against expelling police from the labor federation.

David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, which represents actors and television writers, said that police unions must now hold themselves more accountable and deal with systemic racism, but that labor should keep police unions in the federation to push law enforcement toward reforms.

“Some people believe that a police union, or commission, or department, or one of those other entities, is so corrupt that it is beyond taking the first step and actually making that change,” White said. “All I'm saying is that our starting point is that now is the time when they can and they must.”

The Association of Flight Attendants published a resolution June 5 calling on law enforcement unions to “actively address racism in law enforcement and especially to hold officers accountable for violence against citizens, or be removed from the Labor movement.” AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said her union had passed the resolution because there was a “visceral reaction” among union members to Floyd’s death and support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Collective bargaining is about lifting workers up and giving workers voice and power,” Nelson said. “Collective bargaining is never about aiding the side of the oppressor. And so we think it's very important to put very clear demands on the police unions.”

But when asked if the flight attendants support the disaffiliation of the police union from the larger labor federation, Nelson wavered, saying her union’s position was that the disaffiliation should be researched and evaluated by the AFL-CIO’s board.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also took a measured approach, defending contracts that protect union members but saying police unions often take things too far. She also did not support ousting the police union from the AFL-CIO.

“There's responsibility, when you have collective bargaining, that contracts protect against false allegations," Weingarten said. "But they can't shield misconduct and they can't operate that way.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in recent weeks has attempted to redirect furor away from the police union. In an interview with Bloomberg News, when asked why the AFL-CIO wouldn’t cut ties with the policing union, Trumka said “collective bargaining is not the enemy” but that “the enemy is a broken justice system that in too many cases fails to hold perpetrators of police violence accountable.”

“We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police misconduct is to engage with our police affiliates rather than isolate them,” Trumka said. “We’re committing to do what's hard and meaningful rather than what’s quick and easy.”