In the ongoing controversies and protests about recent incidents of unarmed black men being killed by police, unions which represent the police are typically taking positions which strongly oppose criminal prosecution for police who use deadly force in the line of duty. Most of us on Daily Kos have a fundamental perspective as seeing unions as playing a useful role in protecting the rights of workers. Yet, most of us have reacted negatively to a system that seems to be geared to protecting police who commit acts of violence from criminal prosecution. So how do we regard the role of unions in this situation?
Union membership in the private sector has declined drastically over the past 40 years. At this point most of the US workers who are union members are employed in the public sector. It is not unusual for various segments of public opinion to perceive the interest of public workers as potentially being in conflict with their interests as citizens who pay taxes which fund public services and who in term use these public services. The controversy over teachers and their unions gets frequent attention in the media. Some people view protections which make it difficult to fire a teacher as contributing to poor standards in public education. Other people see teachers as providing a bulwark against the move toward standardized assembly line education. This division in opinion tends to fall somewhat along left right political lines. At the heart of the disagreement are differences in views about what the educational system should be doing. Opinion on Daily Kos is usually supportive of teachers and their unions.
When it comes to police we are dealing with an even sharper split in public opinion about their legitimate function and purpose. That split matches up closely with basic positions in political ideology. With or without unions civil servants usually have more job protections than workers in private industry who have no union. The police unions are providing another level of protection to individual police employees. Like other unions, they are also taking collective political action to support their interests. In New York they have drawn the battle lines with Mayor Bill de Blasio. It began when the mayor appeared at a press conference with Al Sharpton who they consider to be police enemy no. 1. The mayor has been highly critical of the police and the grand jury in the killing of Eric Garner. This is the latest bit of grandstanding by the union.
New York City’s rank-and-file police union is urging its members to ban Mayor Bill de Blasio from their funerals.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association posted a link on its website telling members not to let de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito “insult their sacrifice” should they be killed in the line of duty. The union posted a waiver officers can sign requesting the two politicians not attend their funerals due to their “consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve.”
This is of course a symbolic gesture but it reflects the level of political passions that have developed.
There is a story from San Diego that is considerably more disturbing.
The arrest this week of two ex-cop private investigators — charged with felonies related to their alleged attempt to frame a Costa Mesa city councilman for a false DUI — is about more than the disturbing tactics of two hired guns. It offers insight into the way some police unions across California intimidate political opponents into silence.
In California the prison guards union has become a significant political force in promoting the continued expansion of the prison industrial complex. The ballot measure which passed last month reducing many drug related offences from felonies to misdemeanors was a major political setback for them and local law enforcement lobbying efforts.
Public opinion polls show that police organizations have been generally successful at building majority support for their agenda. A majority of white Americans are pro police. A large majority of black Americans are not. I find myself having a fundamental difference in my views about teachers and police. We obviously have to have both professions. However, we also need public accountability and control of both of them. In the case of police I think that is seriously lacking. Efforts to establish citizen controlled police review boards are typically met by strong union opposition. I still think that all workers should have a right and opportunity for union representation and collective bargaining. Unions have the same rights to political organizing and action as other groups. I am not suggesting that any of this should be legally restricted. However, that doesn't stop me from having some pretty negative views about the role being played by police unions.