Feb 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Trumka defends police unions on racial justice sincerity

Police unions "should be able to negotiate disciplinary stuff" to protect officers from unfair punishment, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said during an "Axios on HBO" interview.

Why this matters: Following last year's death of George Floyd during an arrest and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests nationwide, law enforcement unions are at the center of a heated debate in the labor movement.

  • Racial justice leaders, the BLM movement and some unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO believe police unions don't belong in the labor movement because they use their collective bargaining powers to shield cops from accountability and block reform efforts.
  • They say it's inappropriate to negotiate leniency for police misconduct and that agreements make it hard to fire officers who abuse their power or mistreat vulnerable minorities.

Trumka pushed back, saying without the power to negotiate disciplinary actions, the outcomes could be "capricious" in ways unfair to officers.

  • Among the AFL-CIO's diverse federation is the International Union of Police Associations, which negotiates on behalf of some local police unions.
  • "Look, I came from a coal mine. My grandfather helped organize that coal mine and we didn't have any protection," Trumka said. "The employer did all the disciplinary stuff. And I could tell you, it was never fair and it didn't help in policing."

Yes, but: Police officers are authorized to carry guns and use lethal force in their jobs.

  • Progressive critics of police unions argue that to bargain over disciplinary proceedings for an officer who may have killed an unarmed Black man is a fundamentally different proposition than negotiating sanctions for a coal miner or a teacher.

Other highlights: During the interview, Trumka also defended his legacy in the labor movement amid a period of decline.

  • He pushed back aggressively against criticisms from younger union leaders that the movement under his watch has put too much money and focus into political donations and not enough into organizing.
  • On the fraught topic of school reopenings, he sided with the Chicago Teachers Union and dismissed comments from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that vaccinations need not be a prerequisite for teachers to return to classrooms.
  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a tentative deal today that would reopen schools for parents seeking in-school instruction.

Editor's Note: Updates with tentative deal for Chicago and its public school teachers.

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