Socialism is the Best Medicine

Socialism is the Best Medicine

Police Unions Expose Class Conflict in US Labor

July 6, 2020


Outrage against police violence has challenged the inclusion of police in American unions. To resolve this problem, we need to understand how police were able to infiltrate the labor movement.

The International Union of Police Associations, representing more than 100,000 ‘law-enforcement’ employees, is directly affiliated with the largest union federation in the US, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

Police and other ‘law enforcement’ officers are also embedded inside AFL-CIO-affiliated unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Communications Workers of America (CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Teamsters Union (IBT).

Currently, most unions defend the inclusion of police, albeit with anti-racist reforms. Others want them expelled.

In their statement, “All Workers Must Stand Against Police Violence,” the United Electrical Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) concludes,

As long as the organizations formed by police use their power to defend violent and racist practices – and as long as police are used to further the interests of the employers instead of those of working-class communities – we cannot consider their orders, associations or “unions” to be part of the labor movement.

This is easier said than done.


Why are police in the labor movement? Most ‘crime’ results from society’s refusal to provide what people need: meaningful work, income security, housing, education, medical care, and social support. Systemic deprivation creates the ‘crime’ that (we are told) needs to be policed.

The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.

These crimes of deprivation can be eliminated by providing what people need. Or those in need can be policed so they don’t disturb the system that deprives them. This is a class conflict.

The traditional goal of the labor movement is to end deprivation by raising living standards. The goal of the capitalist class and their police is to protect the system of deprivation by targeting those who rebel against it. Unions that attempt to combine these opposing goals suffer paralysis:

One cannot support striking workers and also support police escorting scabs through picket lines. One cannot defend the oppressed and also support the police who terrorize them.

In spite of what [AFL-CIO president Richard L.] Trumka said during the Ferguson uprising, about how the unions should be supportive of the Black Liberation Movement, we haven’t seen any evidence of that with the Chicago Federation of Labor. They haven’t come out in support of us because the Fraternal Order of Police is part of that federation, and they’re using that union card to paralyze the rest of the trade union movement from supporting us.

Class struggle

A class-conscious labor movement would never include labor’s enemies. This changed as unions abandoned class struggle in favor of class collaboration. Let’s briefly review how this occurred.

The rise of post-war industrial unions marked a high point in working-class struggle. Pledging to organize workers of all ‘races,’ the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) grew from a trade union federation into a mass movement of the working class. One strike leader recalled,

The initials CIO stood for power. You’d see posters in homes and posters on cars proudly proclaiming, “I am CIO.” Those three letters, CIO, had great significance. I’ve never known of anything else as powerful.

In 1946, the CIO launched “Operation Dixie,” sending 250 organizers into 12 Southern states to organize Black and White workers.

The African-American community, especially, saw in the CIO a strong ally as we struggled to arouse the nation to put an end to the racist Jim Crow practices that disfigured the American landscape. When the opportunity offered, we joined the CIO in great numbers and with great pride, and our community contributed dozens of gifted leaders, men and women who worked alongside their white counterparts as organizers – sometimes despite obstacles within the CIO itself.

Threatened by an increasingly militant and unifying labor movement, the capitalist class retaliated with an anti-communist crusade.

“Red Scare”

The ‘Cold War’ between the US and the USSR for global domination was supported in the US by a crusade to equate “American” with “anti-communist.”

In order to eliminate the alleged threat of domestic communism, a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and other anti-communist activists hounded an entire generation of radicals and their associates, destroying lives, careers, and all the institutions that offered a Left-wing alternative to mainstream politics and culture. That anti-communist crusade used all the power of the State to turn dissent into disloyalty and, in the process, drastically narrowed the spectrum of acceptable political debate.

Conservative union leaders jumped on the anti-communist bandwagon to demonstrate their loyalty to the capitalist order and to rid themselves of socialist workers who challenged their friendly relations with management.

Between 1949 and 1950, the CIO expelled 11 Communist-Party-led unions, more than 10 percent of its total membership. By 1954, 59 unions barred communists from holding union office, and 40 unions prohibited communists from being union members. Operation Dixie was abandoned.

Having purged the unions of radical socialists and deepened divisions among workers, the capitalist class could drive up productivity, make the US the strongest economy in the world, and secure global domination.

The US labor movement and the Left have not yet recovered from this defeat.

Class collaboration

American workers today have seen the unions turned into their opposite, from representatives of the workers to an independent power that imposes its discipline over the workers.

Ripping the socialist backbone out of the unions transformed them from fighting organizations controlled by workers into service organizations controlled by bureaucrats. As a result, unions became ‘cross-class’ formations containing two social classes:

Most union members are working-class. However, they do not control their unions. They are controlled by a middle-class layer of union bureaucrats who collaborate with employers to set the terms of worker exploitation.

Union bureaucrats who cozy up to their class enemies cannot also defend workers’ rights. Instead, they strive to ‘balance’ workers’ needs and employers’ needs. This is a losing strategy; what benefits the employer hurts the worker and vice versa.

As bureaucrats gained more control, unions become less militant, less concerned with fighting oppression, and more concerned with keeping the employer in business. This shifted the balance in favor of the capitalist class, and unions began to lose what they had gained in past labor battles.

Partners with the State

Today’s union bureaucrats share the same goals as the capitalist class and their State, boosting worker productivity and supporting US foreign policy with racist “Buy American” campaigns, and worse:

Without the awareness or consent of their members, top executives in the AFL-CIO have worked with the US State to overthrow democratically-elected governments, prop up anti-union dictators, and support right-wing unions against progressive governments.

In 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the Advisory Committee on Labor Diplomacy,

When you undertook your lives as labor leaders…becoming a part of the US Government may have not have been something that you intended…but I do think it has been a very important partnership. I think that is the best way to describe it.

Union power betrayed

Despite being heavily bureaucratized, unions remain the most effective way for workers to improve their lives. That is why most Americans approve of labor unions, and nearly half would join one if they could.

Compared with non-union workers, the average union worker in the US enjoys 28 percent higher wages and more benefits. Oppressed groups benefit most. The wage gap between union women and men is much smaller than it is for non-union workers.

When private-sector unionization was at its peak in the mid-1950s, low-skill workers and African Americans made up a disproportionately high share of the unionized workforce. This means that, to the extent the ‘union premium’ redistributes wealth between workers, this redistribution was progressive when unions were most prevalent.

Organized workers have power. However, union bureaucrats fear displays of class power that could escape their control. They prefer to use the threat of a strike as a negotiating tool. To avoid strikes, union officials will sign contracts that workers have rejected. When a strike cannot be avoided, officials will let workers ‘blow off steam,’ then pull them back to work prematurely.

Class collaboration explains the tepid response of union bureaucrats to COVID-19. They did not mobilize the labor movement to demand protection for essential workers or to ensure financial support and medical care for all affected workers. Instead, the presidents of four major unions: the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters issued this joint statement,

We look forward to sitting down with the nation’s business leaders, as well as the leaders of governments, universities, hospitals and school systems, to hammer out agreements that will restore profits and economic growth as we emerge from this crisis, and protect as many jobs as possible as we battle it.

Once could make a case for class collaboration if employers and government cared about workers. They do not, as demonstrated by their criminal failure to protect workers during the pandemic.

There is huge resistance to acknowledging a class divide inside the labor movement. Conflict between worker-activists and union bureaucrats is not seen as a class struggle between workers and managers. It is simply assumed that the wrong people are in charge or have the wrong ideas.

Unfortunately, the problem is much deeper, being rooted in the system of bureaucratic management and the practice of class collaboration that pushed struggles against oppression out the door and ushered in the police.

Police unions

Workers’ unions and police unions stand on opposite sides of the class war. Workers unionize to protect themselves from the boss. Police unions are company unions that shield police from accountability for terrorizing workers on behalf of the boss.

Police contracts make it exceptionally difficult to investigate, penalize, or fire officers. This lack of accountability increases police violence. After Florida sheriff’s deputies gained collective bargaining rights, incidents of violent misconduct rose 40 percent.

Even though police budgets claim 20 to 45 percent of most city budgets, police foundations raise millions more from industries and institutions. These financial ties cement the relationship between police and the corporate powers they serve.

Funds raised by police are used to purchase more weaponry, lobby for anti-worker legislation, and defeat efforts to reform police practice, cut police funding, or reduce mass incarceration. In short, police unions are fully committed to the system of racist, anti-worker oppression that justifies their existence.

Police are not workers

The capitalist class are too few in numbers to enforce their rule in person. They require a larger managerial class to act on their behalf.

In the workplace, managers impose the will of the boss on the workers. On the streets, police impose the will of the ruling class on society, targeting the most oppressed who have the most to gain by rebelling.

Regardless of the class into which they were born, police manage the working class on behalf of the ruling class, and that role puts them squarely in the managerial middle class.*

Police are not in the same class as soldiers, who are predominantly working class. Soldiers are forbidden to unionize because doing so would undermine the ability of officers to control the ranks.

Police insist that any attack on their unions will make it easier to attack all public sector unions. The reverse is true. Unlike genuine public sector workers, police and their employers stand on the same side of the class divide. Expelling police from the labor movement will end their paralyzing influence, making it easier to defend all workers.

Class solidarity

The Black rebellion against police terror and majority support for Black Lives Matter have rattled the establishment to the point that prominent US politicians felt compelled to wrap themselves in African kente cloth and take a knee.

The battle to remake society has begun. To remake it for the common good, workers must transform their unions into ones that fight for the common good. That means refusing to collaborate with capitalists and their police and orienting instead to the larger working class.

Orienting to the working class means rejecting the capitalists’ definition of crime (which never includes their own behavior). It means redefining crime as whatever enriches the few at the expense of the many, and redefining criminals as those who engage in such predatory behavior.

Orienting to the working class means returning the struggle against oppression to its rightful place at the heart of the union movement because an injury to one truly is an injury to all. And it means internationalism, actively opposing workers’ oppression everywhere, especially when perpetrated by our own State.

Orienting to the working class means redefining ‘union’ to mean workers standing up for each other, not workers being serviced by bureaucrats. It means organizing rank-and-file caucuses inside the unions to agitate for democratic member control.

Union bureaucrats who take a managerial (policing) stance towards their members have no problem working with police and will resist expelling them. It will take organized pressure from union members to kick out the police and the bureaucrats who defend them.

Bureaucrats restrict bargaining to what affects their own members. However, the recent wave of teachers’ strikes showed that much more can be achieved when unions link their demands with the needs of the larger working class. Class solidarity is the only power that can defeat a capitalist class bent on profiting from mass suffering.


The demand to ‘defund the police’ can be realized only by ending the system of class domination that requires police.

The labor movement can play a central role in this transformation by rejecting class collaboration, rebuilding rank-and-file power in the workplace, and prioritizing the fight against oppression. Purging police from the labor movement is a necessary step in this transformation.

Unions can be returned to their original purpose of defending workers by reviving this basic principle of class-struggle unionism:

There are two sides to the class war. You must choose which side you are on.

*For a fuller discussion of the managerial class see: Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism.



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