Police unions and minorities should be allies in the battle to reduce economic inequality

The right-wing is happy to label initiatives to change the relationship between police and the communities that they protect as “disbanding” and “defunding” the police. As many are pointing out, those on the left who use these terms are playing into the hands of Trump and his merry band of fascists. Much better terms are “reform,” “reimagine” and “reallocate.” 

Language is a powerful tool in the hands of propagandists because for many people, language creates or, at the very least, shapes reality. The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joe Biden, is wise to steer clear of “disbanding” and “defunding.” The fact he says he does not approve of either indicates nothing more than his awareness of how people will respond to these loaded terms. He is in favor of a reform that reimagines police forces to make them more sensitive to community needs and, quite frankly, less racist in their use of tactics. Furthermore, he will go as far left as Nancy Pelosi wants to go on any issue, and Nancy wants national legislation to reform police departments across the country.

But exploring the ramifications of “disbanding” brings us to the nexus of a conundrum befuddling the Democrats the union movement. By definition, disbanding a police department kills the union, which gives municipalities the opportunity to rehire a police force at a lower cost. (“Defunding” could theoretically lead to replacing unionized police with nonunionized community workers, but it is likely that the first place municipalities will look to cut police budgets are unneeded and extremely expensive military-grade weaponry and hardware.) Killing unions has long been one of the central tenants of the right-wing, so “disbanding” police departments sounds like a conservative solution. And yet, the voices for disbanding are coming mostly from progressives.

Police unions have dug in their heels for decades, fighting every reform and protecting their bad eggs, apples and seeds. Everything the heads of police unions have said since the George Floyd murder suggests they will continue to support even the most egregiously racist and violent behavior by individual officers and oppose any and all reform. The unwillingness of police unions to consider change puts a deep wedge between them and the Democratic Party. The law-and-order Republicans may look like a better bet for the cops on the surface, but transferring wealth from the middle class and the poor up the ladder to the wealthy remains the alpha and omega of 21st century conservativism. When it comes time to renegotiate union contracts, police unions will face more opposition from Republican mayors and city councils than from Democrats. Think of New York City, where the police worked without a contract for years under the Bloomberg Administration but quickly came to terms favorable to them after Bill De Blasio took over as mayor. That bought De Blasio a lot of credit with the police until the very first time he raised even an iota of an inkling of a question about an incident of police brutality.

The recalcitrance of police unions to change reverberates beyond issues of public safety and equitable treatment under the law. Unionism used to define the Democratic Party. Democrats would depend on union voters to win elections and in return, the Democrats passed legislation that helped blue collar workers. The tight-knit seams binding Democrats to unions began to unravel in 1968, 1972 and 1980, when many union members ignored their leadership to vote for Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan. Racism, often disguised as law-and-order, primarily motivated union members to switch.

Yet it wasn’t just union members abandoning Democrats. Democrats also moved away from a full embrace of the union movement. Many centrist Democrats like both Clintons, Obama, Al Gore, Booker, Yang and O’Rourke have supported charter schools, ignoring that the big money and conservative ideologues behind the idea of charter schools have had as their sole objective the destruction of teachers’ unions. In their eagerness to enact school reform that did not involve increasing school budgets, Democrats in a sense abandoned teachers’ unions in pursuit of the pie-in-the-sky false premise of charter schools. As is usual when non-union workers replace union workers or when government functions are privatized, everyone lost. Studies show that two-thirds of charter schools do no better or do worse than the equivalent public school and that many of the top performing charter schools have cooked their books. Moreover, students who remain in public schools in districts which add charter schools suffer from a reduction in overall funding. 

When we talk about the constituencies of the Democratic Party today, we mention city dwellers, minorities, immigrants, college grads and the LGBTQ community. We hardly ever mention unions, which reflects not only the alienation and racism of primarily white blue collar workers, but also the decline of unions as a meaningful share of the population. It’s a very troubling trend, because no nation in world history has ever been able to create even a modicum of economic equality without a strong union movement. Even when certain unions were slow to admit minorities, minorities benefited from their presence, because unions raise the wages of others at the same company, other companies in the same industry and other companies in the community. Unionism, and not Reagan’s trickle-down theory, is the tide that lifts all boats. 

Progressives talk about raising the minimum wage, universal healthcare, taxing the wealthy and making college free to all. I agree with all these positions, but assert that the most effective way to reduce economic inequality and to pursue economic justice would be to pass legislation that made it so easy to unionize that the percentage of the workforce that is unionized could climb from the current 13% to 30-60% within a few years.

The current situation approaches the tragic. The police and those they are supposed to keep safe should be allies in creating vibrant and safe cities and fighting the predations of the ultra-wealthy. Instead, they are at loggerheads.  

We are not asking much of police unions: Don’t defend cops who use excessive force. Don’t hire cops who have been fired for problems by other departments. Don’t apply a double standard in the use of force, but treat all citizens the same regardless of race, ethnic background and sex. Never shoot to kill. End the use of chokeholds and other inherently dangerous tactics. None of these are unrealistic requests. Police officers and police unions should be clamoring to get behind reform. In return, the Democratic Party should embrace the union movement as both part of the coalition opposed to the right-wing and as the primary strategy for reducing inequality in America.  

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