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From soldier to worker

Police unions were born of resistance to discipline for brutality. Do they belong in the labor movement?

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NGUYEN TRAN
  • Nguyen Tran

On September 14, 2004, a scene unfolded in the West Loop that would have been unthinkable a few decades before. The city unveiled a 3,200-pound bronze sculpture commemorating the Haymarket Affair of 1886. A seminal moment in international labor history, the Haymarket Affair started as a labor strike for an eight-hour workday and ended in a violent confrontation between demonstrators and police. Someone threw a bomb, four workers and seven cops were killed, dozens of people were injured, and more than 100 arrested. Ultimately seven people accused of inciting the riot were sentenced to death based on scant evidence in a trial criticized for its prejudice against the defendants. For the next century, the city of Chicago commemorated the events at Haymarket Square with a massive statue of a police officer, which was periodically vandalized or destroyed. After two consecutive bombings by the Weathermen between 1968 and 1970, the statue was moved to Chicago Police Department headquarters, where it stands to this day.

Thirty years later, on that day in 2004, the massive sculpture depicting workers atop a wagon was dedicated by Chicago Federation of Labor president Dennis Gannon and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 president Mark Donahue. "Haymarket represents the beginning of labor rights in this country. It's really about our most important right, which is freedom of speech, freedom to protest. If you don't have that, you're going to be oppressed," Gannon told the New York Times. Donahue, meanwhile, reflected that police officers had "come a long way" since their violent repression of labor activists. "We recognize that the people who fought for labor rights in the past gave us the protections we have today," the president of the police union told the Times.

As the nation roils with protests over police violence, scrutiny has turned toward police unions like the FOP, whose collective bargaining agreements with municipalities help shield officers from consequences for misconduct. Conversations have started about how cities and states might go about limiting the power of police unions. Labor councils and federations are weighing the expulsion of police unions from their ranks. But how did cops come to have such powerful unions in the first place? Over the course of the 20th century police officers in Chicago went from violent antagonists of workers to legitimate members of the labor movement. As it turns out, the transformation of officers' public image and self-understanding from a paramilitary organization to public-sector workers was catalyzed by cops' resistance to discipline for brutality and misconduct. Over time police forged alliances with other municipal employees and the wider labor movement. But now, there are signs that the long-standing comradery between cops and the rest of organized labor is fracturing, as more and more people explore what could be done to limit the power of police unions.

In the early 20th century, organizations for rank-and-file cops were not initially oriented toward forming unions for collective bargaining, but they did try to represent officers' concerns over labor conditions and pay. In Chicago, the Patrolmen's Social, Athletic and Efficiency Club was named this way to specifically signal that it wasn't a union, though it did give voice to cops' frustrations over having to pay for their uniforms and work seven days a week. Still, as unionization was sweeping the private sector through World War I, the American Federation of Labor began issuing charters to nascent police unions. Public officials and police superintendents condemned this incursion of unionism among officers, arguing that policing was a paramilitary pursuit requiring full allegiance of its officers to the governments they served. Cops were soldiers, not workers.

In 1919, the AFL-chartered Boston police union went on a five-day strike demanding recognition from the city, which led to chaos and rioting in the streets and the deployment of the State Guard in response. As Woodrow Wilson put it, the police strike was "a crime against civilization" and the AFL suspended its attempts to unionize cops for decades in its aftermath. Meanwhile, police remained the principal response of governments and businesses to labor unrest. In 1937, during what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago, cops shot live rounds into striking steel workers and their families, killing ten and injuring dozens more.

The next wave of police unionization attempts would come during World War II, as cops' salaries deteriorated compared to those of other workers. These attempts were again thwarted by the local, state, and federal government, this time bolstered by a series of court decisions that affirmed the view that cops were akin to the military and were thus different from other public employees. Police unions were banned around the country, but the informal organizations formed by the rank and file often received some department funding for recreational and charitable activities and negotiated for pay raises and working condition changes with police chiefs and city governments. In Chicago these "handshake" deals were usually secured by the Chicago Patrolmen's Association. Throughout the mayoral tenure of Richard J. Daley, these kinds of labor agreements with city workers of all types were the norm. The mayor would periodically grant extra compensation for overtime work, salary raises, and a shorter workweek to cops, and the conservative city police force wasn't keen on having a union—until the city launched a major crackdown on police misconduct in the early 1960s.

The "Summerdale Scandal" of 1960 exposed a police burglary ring in Chicago and brought Orlando W. Wilson as the new CPD superintendent. In the years that followed, the city increased police funding (which went up by 20 percent in just one year), overhauled the technological capacity of the department (including moving foot patrolmen into cars), and got more serious about punishing police misbehavior. Resentment festered between supervisors and the rank and file because Wilson also instituted the first internal affairs division to investigate and discipline officers and cut funding to police organizations.

Throughout the 1960s new police organizations started to vie for cops' dues with promises of better representation of their interests. This included the Afro-American Patrolmen's League (AAPL), which would fight for fairer minority hiring and promotion practices within CPD for 20 years under the slogan "Black Power through the law." The FOP set up its lodge in Chicago in 1963, quickly signed up hundreds of members, and started demanding a 20 percent raise for cops. Nationwide, police organizations began to win formal recognition as collective bargaining agents for officers, beginning with New York City's Police Benevolent Association in 1964, which agreed to give up its right to strike and not to affiliate with any other labor union.

The late 1960s saw a culmination of the civil rights movement, along with landmark Supreme Court rulings granting protections to people accused of crimes, such as Miranda rights and a right to legal counsel. At the same time the nation witnessed shocking images of police repression at civil rights demonstrations and anti-Vietnam War protests. In Chicago, a "police riot" marred the Democratic National Convention four months after Mayor Daley authorized police to "shoot to kill" during riots in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The next year, law enforcement officers killed Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton as he slept in his home. Day-to-day incidents of police brutality and violence against citizens were also beginning to receive more attention.

As historian Megan Marie Adams documented in her 2012 dissertation on Chicago police unionization, between 1969 and 1970 CPD officers killed 79 people, and thousands reported being beaten and injured by cops. Three-quarters of those killed by police were Black, and Chicago cops killed people at a rate three times higher than those in other major cities. But, even though internal affairs investigations sustained less than 3 percent of brutality charges, discipline for minor violations tended to be swift and severe. Renault Robinson, the head of the AAPL, put it this way in a 1971 speech: "You will get more time for being late than killing somebody accidentally."

As protests erupted in Chicago over the police killing of George Floyd, CPD flexed its muscle. - BROOKE HUMMER
  • Brooke Hummer
  • As protests erupted in Chicago over the police killing of George Floyd, CPD flexed its muscle.

Cops around the country and in Chicago began demanding a "Police Bill of Rights" throughout the 1970s. This bill of rights sought to enshrine protections for cops facing internal discipline that mirrored those offered to criminal defendants by the U.S. Constitution. As Adams puts it, cops began to conceive of themselves as a persecuted minority and co-opted the language of the civil rights and Black Power movements to demand new rights and protections from public scrutiny. The FOP, which had endorsed segregationist George Wallace for president and fundraised for cops facing criminal charges for their behavior during the DNC, proved particularly skillful in channeling officers' frustrations into concrete demands. Though they were still relatively small among the Chicago police organizations, they were beginning to succeed in winning collective bargaining recognition in other police departments in Illinois. They also capitalized on white male cops' resentment of the increased presence of minorities and women on the force to grow their membership ranks.

Chicago cops were finally allowed to join unions in 1975, after the United Paperworkers International Union sued CPD for violating their employees' free association rights. Amid the American manufacturing decline private-sector union membership was dwindling, but the public sector offered a lifeline. Groups that originally had nothing to do with cops, firefighters, and clerks vied to unionize these workforces. Still, Chicago didn't recognize city workers' unions. And even though an AFL-CIO affiliate went to court on their behalf, police officers mostly stuck with their own organizations and kept big labor groups, such as the Paperworkers and Teamsters, at arm's length. According to Adams, many officers saw the unions as corrupt and incongruent with their identities as law enforcement, even as they organized labor actions of their own, like pickets, ticket "blitzes," and even a meeting at which an effigy of Mayor Daley was hanged from a hotel chandelier.

With the death of Richard J. Daley in 1976, the traditional system of handshake bargaining with public employees collapsed. Two years later Jane Byrne campaigned on the promise to let city workers, including cops, have collective bargaining agreements. In 1980 Chicago cops became the last major city police force in the country to officially unionize. Three police organizations, the Paperworkers, and the Teamsters competed to represent the officers, while the department and the AAPL campaigned against a union. (The latter's justification was that a police union would do little to fight discrimination against minority officers.) The FOP won the representation election on the strength of its reputation for successfully winning union contracts in other cities, all while maintaining that they weren't a union.

As the country moved into the Reagan years and organized labor entered a prolonged period of decline, the FOP secured the first contract for rank-and-file cops, which included a Police Bill of Rights. The cops gave up their right to strike in return for new protections from dismissal and discipline. "The FOP's contract also forged a partnership between the union and the police department as the department aided FOP efforts to dismantle affirmative action policies in court," Adams writes. This would eventually result in the marginalization and disappearance of the AAPL and other police organizations.

Over the years, the FOP has negotiated increasingly complex contracts and won steady salary increases for its members as well as sweeping protections against misconduct allegations, all the while staunchly supporting even the most disgraced members of the force. In her research, Adams found that in 1992 the FOP won cops pay for "off-duty police dog care" while the next year it dedicated its Saint Patrick's Day parade float to Jon Burge, who'd led a ring of detectives in torturing suspects for two decades. The union has done precious little to help the department root out corrupt cops or protect whistleblowers who went out on a limb to expose them. Until the Laquan McDonald scandal, the union capitalized on a trusting and complacent local media to spin official narratives about police killings and has fought tooth and nail to keep officers' misconduct records hidden.

Even as its public stature has declined, and its leadership has become increasingly militant in resisting what they see as a culture war against police, the FOP has continued to deliver bulletproof contracts to its 8,200 members. The current contract prohibits investigation of anonymous complaints against officers, and requires complainants to submit affidavits; it allows officers to change their statements after reviewing video or audio against them; it bans rewards for whistleblower cops; and it indemnifies officers against any liability for acts committed on the job. Though this contract technically expired in 2017, it remains in effect as the FOP and the city negotiate a new one.

Over the years, the union has also made it a practice to stonewall during negotiations, and demand arbitration for their contracts. Three of the last four FOP contracts were drawn up by an arbitrator rather than decided through give-and-take bargaining. As we've reported before, arbitration is an inherently conservative process, which privileges existing provisions in a contract and makes it nearly impossible to implement significant changes. Last December then-FOP president Kevin Graham demanded arbitration once again, seeking an 18 percent salary increase for cops over three years and resisting changes to policing practices that are supposed to be implemented through the city's consent decree with the Illinois Attorney General. The new Lodge 7 president, John Catanzara (who's been stripped of police powers for allegedly filing a false report against former superintendent Eddie Johnson and has logged 50 misconduct allegations) has vowed to go back to negotiating with the city but is keeping the possibility of arbitration in play.

Given this state of affairs, what, if anything, could be done to limit the power of the FOP?

In a blog published in OnLabor last week, Harvard labor law expert and former SEIU assistant general counsel Benjamin Sachs wrote that there's precedent for limiting the collective bargaining powers of particular unions without threatening the labor movement as a whole.

"When unions bargained contracts that excluded Black workers from employment or that relegated Black workers to inferior jobs, the law stepped in and stripped unions of the right to use collective bargaining in these ways," he wrote. Sachs argued that "police unions have abused the power of collective bargaining in indefensible ways" and suggested curtailing their power by opening bargaining sessions to the public, changing state laws to allow police forces to have multiple unions or "minority union bargaining," and limiting "the range of subjects over which police unions have the right to bargain."

While private-sector union bargaining rules are governed by federal laws, public-sector unions are under state jurisdiction. This is what has allowed some states, like Wisconsin and Texas, to prohibit, eliminate, or severely limit public employee unions. In Wisconsin cops and firefighters were the only ones excluded from the 2011 legislative changes that made it a right-to-work state for public-sector workers. There's no reason why new state laws couldn't apply to police alone. But such legislation would require sweeping action from politicians who, by and large, still fear not coming across as tough enough on crime more than they fear the optics of supporting police officers that brutalize Black communities.

"The cops are bargaining with politicians and other leaders who have bought into the carceral state, this awful law-and-order narrative that demonizes communities of color," said former AFL-CIO associate general counsel Ana Avendaño. "They have an incredibly weak opponent, dealing with politicians who have no backbone, and so they're able to bargain these incredibly unjust contracts."

"We're in a moment when the abuse of collective bargaining power by the police has been exposed for the world to see," Avendaño said, adding that state laws can limit the scope of union contracts—for example, allowing cops to bargain over wages and benefits but not over disciplinary procedures. Similarly, state laws can also change when it comes to arbitration. "States allow public employees the right to bargain and that's a good thing. It gives them safety and security, it makes a more stable workforce and protects the public," she said. "I think what's different about the police is they have been able to wield the power of white supremacy to bargain contracts for themselves that are just unlike any other public employee contract."

A way to limit police union power and change the political calculus around supporting the police, Avendaño added, is to expel cops' unions from local labor councils like the Chicago Federation of Labor or national ones like the AFL-CIO. Fraternal Orders of Police and Police Benevolent Associations rarely belong to federations anyway (Lodge 7 isn't part of the CFL), but there are smaller police unions that do. When a union isn't part of an umbrella group, other unions can set up competing groups within the workforce that union represents. Though the FOP is the exclusive bargaining agent authorized by the city of Chicago, public-sector employees in Illinois are allowed to vote to decertify a union if they can gather the support of 30 percent of their shop. Of course, since the FOP has won such strong contracts for its members, it seems unlikely that that would ever happen.

Avendaño said that so far she's been disappointed by organized labor's response to the current political moment and hopes to see bolder statements calling out police unions from national labor groups like the AFL-CIO.

"The labor movement can't be the armadillo protecting its soft underbelly with a hard shell hoping this issue will go away," she said. "Nor can we just sign on to a right-wing agenda to do away with collective bargaining rights for public employees. For us to be able to manage this dilemma, the labor movement is gonna have to stand up, recognize that there are problems with police unions, and form strong alliances with activist groups who are changing the system."

BROOKE HUMMER
  • Brooke Hummer

In Chicago, much of the organized labor community has been treading lightly on the issue of whether the FOP belongs in the labor movement and whether the power of cops' unions should be limited. This is despite the fact that the FOP has long stayed at the margins of the labor community here.

Local labor leaders who spoke to the Reader were generally evasive when it came to talking about the FOP. Some in the labor movement have been wary to speak out against police unions for fear of feeding into broader anti-union sentiment that threatens public-sector collective bargaining rights as a whole. There's also the issue of culture inside labor unions, whose members (especially those in the Chicago public sector and those in the trades) often have family and neighborhood ties to cops.

"I've never seen the police stand in solidarity with striking workers, but I have seen them stand in solidarity with white supremacists to protest [Cook County state's attorney] Kim Foxx," said Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, who emphasized he was only sharing his opinion as a member of the local and not as the voice of leadership. The union represents 35,000 public-sector workers in Chicagoland, mostly janitors, security guards, and doormen. "The FOP has always been seen as a far-right, reactionary organization," Morrison said, "I can't think of any union in Chicago that would defend a member who committed murder on the job. Not only did the FOP defend [Jason] Van Dyke, they gave him a job. They used union dues to give him a job. They don't behave like a union."

"I think police can have their union but we need to attack the power of the police union. And that means not having other labor movements stand in solidarity with police," said Scott Mechanic, a member of National Nurses United and a nurse in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at the University of Chicago hospital. He said he's been disappointed in his union's "heartfelt but bland statement condemning racism and calling George Floyd's death a murder," adding that what he views as his union's hesitancy to speak out against the police "is a reflection of endemic racism amongst our rank-and-file nurses, many of whom are married to cops. . . . There's so much work to do toward police abolition in health care—reclaiming health-care work from police, which includes responding to mental health emergencies, criminalization of homelessness, and limiting harm from drug use. I don't think any of those things should be functions of police in our society and that's a huge part of what they do and [NNU] has not taken a stance on that."

"In my view, every working person has a fundamental right to a voice on the job. But along with this right comes a responsibility to use that voice to promote justice for all," Chicago Federation of Labor president Bob Reiter wrote in an e-mailed statement. The CFL is an umbrella organization comprising 300 unions in Chicago and Cook County. Last week it issued a statement "resolving to commit itself to fighting for social, economic, and racial justice in all aspects of its work," but Reiter hesitated to make any specific remarks about the FOP. "When it comes to Lodge 7 we've had very little interaction with them," he said on the phone. FOP leadership hasn't shown public support for a CFL action since the 2012 teacher strike, Reiter said.

"The FOP has a very complicated relationship with the rest of us," said Carlos Ginard, assistant manager of Workers United in the midwest, a union that represents some 4,000 low-wage workers, mostly at industrial laundries. "But every worker in America deserves a union, including police officers." Ginard said that his union's membership has been active in protests and that they support the call to defund the police, but that he doesn't see that as an attack on police labor rights.

"I'll never advocate for cutting pay to union members, but I think we need to reform how we police our streets completely," he said. "We've been giving cops too much money and that's created a criminal justice system that's completely against the poor. Look at the equipment that police officers have, you could be buying so many things for children in this city with that same money."

In Chicago's labor community, the most forceful stance against the current state of policing has come from the Chicago Teachers Union. Last week the union joined protesters' calls to defund CPD and take police officers out of schools. It seems the union has evolved in its position since fumbling to distance itself from abolitionist organizer Page May's "fuck the police" cries at CTU's 2016 one-day strike. Yet Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said condemning the FOP isn't really the point. "While we can go off about the FOP and its behavior I think the greater focus has to be on how labor has to take a sharper stance on eradicating white supremacy," Gates said. That starts by putting women and people of color—who comprise the overwhelming majority of many labor unions' members—in leadership positions, she said. "If you have people most impacted by white supremacy in control of decisions, you'll get a labor movement that expresses racial justice."

Gates veered away from discussing the CTU's positions in 2016, when she wasn't yet in leadership, but said that "Black youth and organizers have led us to a space of reckoning where we get to decide to fund the communities where they reside and the schools where they attend and to make sure they're safe and not brutalized."

The Reader reached out to leadership of the Teamsters (who represent guards at the Cook County Jail, among others) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (who represent Illinois prison guards, among others) but didn't receive a response.

FOP Lodge 7 president John Catanzara also didn't return a request for comment.   v

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