US labour activists turn on police unions after George Floyd’s death

The furore over the killing of George Floyd is unsettling the US labour movement as some workers’ advocates turn up the heat on police unions to address racism in their ranks.

The Writers Guild of America, East, which has 7,000 members, this week called on the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, to sever ties with the International Union of Police Associations, which counts more than 100,000 officers as members.

Although the AFL-CIO said it did not intend to eject the IUPA, the call by the writers’ guild highlights the growing opposition on the political left to police unions, which have been accused of blocking efforts to clamp down on racism and brutality in law enforcement.

RT Rybak, a former mayor of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, had told the Financial Times that the police union in the city had fomented an “us-versus-them” mentality that had crippled his government’s ability to improve the department.

Most police unions are not part of the AFL-CIO. The nation’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, with more than 350,000 members, is not affiliated with any broader group. Many other police officers are represented by benevolent associations, non-profit support groups that operate as quasi-unions bargaining on behalf of their members.

However, the call by the writers’ guild, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, for the nation’s biggest labour federation to cut its ties with its police members has echoes in other corners of the US union movement.

The 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, an AFL-CIO affiliate, and the Seattle-based King County Labor Council, which represents 150 unions and 100,000 workers, have demanded that police unions “actively address racism in law enforcement” and “hold officers accountable for violence against citizens” or else be excluded from the labour movement.

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents more than 30,000 workers, primarily on the West Coast, stopped work for nine minutes on Tuesday morning in Floyd’s honour. They are planning another work stoppage to call for the end of “white supremacy and police terror” on June 19, a holiday known as Juneteenth that commemorates the end of slavery in the US.

The AFL-CIO’s relationship with police unions has been an issue in the past. UAW Local 2865, a union representing California graduate students, called for the federation to cut off the police in 2015.

Concerns about police unions had been heightened in the writers’ guild because many of its members were covering the protests that followed Floyd’s death, officials said. Kim Kelly, a freelance labour reporter and member of the guild’s council, said it had become impossible to see police unions as allies “when our members are being beaten up by your members”.

Hamilton Nolan, another member of the guild’s council, added: “The people calling for this are some of the most pro-union voices in America. The key to the whole argument is we believe in unions, but you cannot represent the interest of the people whose job it is to oppress you.”

Tim Schlittner, communications director of the AFL-CIO, said the federation believed “all workers, including police officers, have the right to organise and bargain collectively. While we differ on the exact approach, we respect WGAE and share their goal of eradicating systemic racism and adopting substantial police reform.”

The IUPA did not respond to a request for comment.