How should labor organize for Black lives?

The multiracial working class has an unprecedented opening to push for what we on the Left call “social justice unionism” or “bargaining for the common good.” Depending on the industry or sector, both organized and unorganized workers can link health and safety struggles to larger issues such as Medicare for All, housing protection, food security, and now—after George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day—police brutality and racism.

The last two items raise thorny questions that go beyond easy statements of solidarity. What concrete steps should the labor movement take to organize for Black lives and racial justice?

The answers vary widely depending on context. Teachers’ unions throughout the country are organizing for police-free schools. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution calling for police-free schools, thus helping to push the L.A. Unified School District to cut 35% of the budget for police in schools and redirect it to student services and plans for police-free schools. The Oakland Education Association worked with other groups in a long battle that ended this summer with the dismantling of the school resource officer department in the district.

Another popular demand is to remove police locals from central labor councils and persuade the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate nationally from the International Union of Police Associations. (Although only a fraction of unionized police belong to the IUPA, the move would be significant.) One recent success was the MLK Labor Council’s expulsion of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild. Police and other law enforcement unions such as corrections’ officers vote conservatively on endorsing legislation and political candidates. This has led some unions to revise their endorsement criteria so that they do not endorse candidates who take police union money.

Some unionists are expanding the call to disaffiliate to all law enforcement, such as corrections officers. These calls for wider disaffiliation raise strategic considerations. What do we in the rest of labor accomplish by pushing the unions out of the labor federations? At a time when all workers face major threats to their collective bargaining rights, and many public-sector workers don’t even have them, is this a slippery slope that could cause the entire public sector to lose collective bargaining rights?

After Rayshard Brooks was killed by an Atlanta Police Department officer, I was heartbroken to learn that APD is represented by SEIU-NAGE (National Association of Government Employees). SEIU is my union. In addition to their own organizations, many law enforcement and correctional officers’ classifications are embedded in larger unions like mine. These include Teamsters, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Communications Workers of America, and others. There are many questions here. First, we have to parse through all the different job classifications and types of law enforcement. We do not want to harm those who work closely with law enforcement, such as clerks, parking enforcement personnel, 911 dispatchers, and others whose jobs depend on those department budgets.

There have been calls to re-civilianize some of that work to other departments. Do we really need cops at the scene of a car accident, for instance? There have been calls for a just transition as well, similar to what some have talked about in Medicare for All. What this “just transition” would look like is still unclear, but it could involve giving police officers opportunities to transition into different jobs after their forces have been disbanded. It can also mean a transition for those whose jobs depend on police budgets and who support law enforcement, such as clerks.

Should expulsion be limited to those who carry guns or expanded to include those who carry potentially lethal weapons such as tasers or clubs? And, of course, Eric Garner and George Floyd died from physical maneuvers that should be outlawed everywhere.

To date, unions have resisted calls to cut ties with dues-paying members. But even if the total of dues-paying union members takes a significant hit in the short run, the union movement will be strengthened in the long run by being on the right side of history. Workers are in the streets, and the labor movement should be in sync with the multiracial working class. The organized labor movement is small, but it can’t afford to protect union pocketbooks over Black lives.