This is a discussion piece written by an individual member of the Twin Cities GDC. It does not represent an official document or position of the GDC, or the IWW.
Unions are the means by which working people organize themselves to fight against the bosses and their allies, in the fight to win larger wages, greater autonomy, and eventually, overthrow capitalism itself. In the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), we argue that all workers should be in One Big Union, in order to win against our bosses, and the forces that support them. We also engage in solidarity with other unions. Hell, it was our union that wrote the song “Solidarity Forever.”
In this post, however, I argue that there are in fact unions that we should not consider legitimate. In fact, we should consider them enemies of the people and of the organized working class. First and foremost, these are the police and their unions, including the Federation of Police. The reasons are not difficult to understand once they are laid out, but there has been much confusion recently about how and why a radical labor union dedicated to the solidarity of all working people should explicitly oppose police unions.
In a nutshell, the reason is this. The police are the agents of the state and the bosses, who will preserve capitalism and all its oppressions at any cost. They are, therefore, our enemies, just as the bosses themselves are.
To organize our enemies is to oppose our goals themselves.
After workplace discipline, and the fear of unemployment, the police are the next tool in the bosses’ toolbox. They are also a deeply violent tool, as we know all too well.
The police are not on the side of any movement seeking to disturb the status quo. It is precisely their job – what they are paid for – to maintain the status quo. That includes everything from economic to race and sex-based oppressions.
But I know good cops! My dad was a cop! Not all cops are bad; let’s go after the bad ones!
Yes, we’ve heard this. And there are elements of truth to this objection. Not every cop is a frustrated high school bully with a chip on his shoulder and a hatred for everyone darker than himself. Some are lovely family men and women, who go home at the end of their shifts to loving households.
But yes, we mean your dad too. While on the job, cops are different. They are given, receive, and execute orders, or they lose the respect and solidarity of their peers, and eventually even their employment. How often have you heard of a cop disobeying an unjust order from a superior? How often have you heard of a cop exposing corruption within the Police department? Have you followed what happens to those police officers afterwards? They are harrassed, threatened, demoted, transferred, and drummed out of the force. There is no room for anything but the Thin Blue Line and the Code of Silence for those who are armed and empowered to murder civilians.
So while they are workers of a sort, we deny that police can ever be considered members of the working class, organized to fight for itself and to improve our situation now, and to overthrow capitalism for all humanity. No. They are the enemy of that project, and we cannot pretend otherwise. The stakes are too steep.
We must understand this logic of denying union protections to Law Enforcement clearly, so that it is not used against us. Unfortunately, too many media outlets on all sides of the issue fail to understand the issue.
We must be careful when we discuss our reasons for opposing Police Unions, so that our reasons are not understood as anti-union, and thus appropriatable by our enemies. Even the Right Wing is critical of cop unions, but for them, as in their opposition to Public Sector unions and unions in general, it’s a wedge in their attempt to destroy unions entirely. Here’s an article from the National Review that makes this case. We must be able to recognize these attempts to destroy unions in general, and distinguish our critique of Police Unions from theirs, which are opportunistic and anti-worker. Their critiques of Police Unions are not our critiques.
Some on the Left see police as workers and want to deny them union protections, but feels this places them in some sort of hypocritical or illogical dilemma, as in this Nation piece, where this argument is advanced (and then qualified, but never actually argued against):
Cops are workers. They’re employed to do a job, albeit one that sometimes involves racially profiling or shooting our neighbors, or squandering our tax dollars on paramilitary swag. It’s difficult to argue against police unionization in theory, if you adhere to the principle that everyone who works has a right to organize.
Cops may be workers; they do receive a check from a boss. But they are mostly definitely outside of the working class. Even in the broadest definition of the working class possible, as with our union, the Industrial Workers of the World, which proudly and actively organizes with sex workers and panhandlers, police would have to be excluded, because they are always enemies of the organized working class.
There is a renewed scrutiny of policing lately, driven by the Black Lives Matter movements that have grown out of the police murders of many Black women and men. Thankfully, this has meant that many people who never considered the power that Police Unions have, or that they exist, are now considering precisely that power, and questioning whether police should have it.
- Al-Jazeera recently noted the tension inherent in Police Unions.
- In These Times offers a brief history of the racism at the core of modern police unions.
Some liberals and progressives are simply aiming to ‘reform’ Police Unions. We think this is misguided. We can no more reform police unions than we can reform capitalism. These are structures which are not only born in, but can only thrive through, blood, oppression, and the sweat of labor. There is no reforming the devil. We cannot ‘reform’ police unions any more than we can ‘reform’ the police. Instead, we must
- Delegitimize and oppose Police Unions. This will require the labor movement as a whole to disassociate itself from the police, refuse to charter their unions, and understand that the police are the enemies of the organized working class.
- Promote the formation of Community Self Defense – democratic groups of people, accountable to the democratic community they serve, who take on the task of securing and protecting their communities.
- Abolish the Police entirely.
There is no room for a police union in our vision of a better world, because there is no room for a police force in our vision of a better world. A sustained argument for police abolition isn’t the point of this brief piece, but consider that the police as we imagine them are less than 200 years old. We’ve supposedly been modern Homo Sapiens for about 200,000 years now, which means we did okay for 199,800 years without police.
We often imagine that police have always been with us, but they have not. The police are an invention of the early 19th century, in Britain and the USA, intended to suppress collective action by free and enslaved workers. In Britain and the North of the USA, the police were a response to the inability of the army to effectively suppress worker rebellions. In the South of the USA, it was a response to the fear of insurrection and the need of slavers to control the movements of the enslaved. The police grew directly out of Slave-Catching Posses. We don’t need the police. We never did.
We cannot permit ourselves to imagine that we can reach a stage where we will have domesticated the police. There is no place in a decent society for police.