Statement of the UE General Executive Board, June 23, 2020
The protests that have swept our country since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in May have put the issue of police violence front and center. The labor movement has a special responsibility to speak out on this issue. Too many of our members have experienced violence and harassment from the police due to nothing more than the color of their skin. All workers who struggle for a better life are threatened when the police are used to violently suppress protest. And just as our country is starved of needed social services due to a bloated military budget, state and local services are underfunded due to overspending on increasingly militarized police forces.
We join the call to “defund the police.” What does it mean to defund the police? It means reducing police budgets so we can invest in the economic development and social services that are needed to make all communities safe and prosperous. We need more social workers, mental health professionals, child advocates, sexual assault specialists, and other workers who are actually trained to respond to the types of crises that all too frequently fall to police. The feasibility of such an approach is clear in the fact that nearly every other industrialized nation spends less on police, more on social services, and has lower crime rates.
We also need massive investment in preventing the conditions that lead to crime. We live under an economic system that purposefully makes people unemployed in order to keep wages low — it is official government policy to raise interest rates if the unemployment rate gets “too low.” The grinding poverty of unemployment and low-wage jobs is often concentrated in communities of color and rural areas, especially those that have suffered deindustrialization. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some desperate people turn to breaking the law to provide for themselves and their families. The only way to address this problem is by, as we declared in 1991, “restructuring our economy to provide decent jobs at a living wage for all.”
Policing has its roots in institutions that were established to control workers, enforce white supremacy, enable colonialism, and protect the wealth of the capitalist class: slave patrols, “Indian constables,” and the hiring of armed men by governments and corporations to control workers and break strikes in coal fields and industrial cities. The first state police force, the Pennsylvania state police, was created at the behest of mine and factory owners to suppress organization in the coal mines and iron factories, and was modeled on the U.S. occupation forces in the Philippines.
Bosses continued to use police, the National Guard, and privately-employed company guards to violently suppress the labor movement through the mid-20th century, with hundreds of workers killed during the organizing drives and strikes of the 1930s. In what came to be known as the “Memorial Day Massacre” in 1937, police opened fire on a peaceful march of striking steelworkers on the south side of Chicago, killing ten and injuring nearly one hundred workers and supporters. Public outrage over the massacre, which was captured on film by Paramount Pictures, helped make this the last large-scale killing of striking workers in the U.S., but did not prevent police from violently attacking picketers — including many UE members — during the 1946-47 strikes that consolidated industrial unionism in the electrical, auto and steel industries .
Even when the police are not being used to violently attack strikes and protests, their role is to protect the employers’ property, not strikers’ rights — in other words, to protect capital from labor. During UE Local 234’s 2017 strike against Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, police backed up management’s aggressive attempts to bring trucks through picket lines, and in Locals 506 and 618’s 2019 strike against Wabtec in Erie, Pennsylvania, it was the police who enforced the injunction against mass picketing.
If police violence against picket lines is less common today than in the past, the same cannot be said for police violence against those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Under the guise of “law and order,” anti-worker politicians have sought to divide the working class by portraying Black people as violent and subhuman, who must be suppressed by police violence. Black people are two and a half times as likely as white people to be killed by the police, with Indigenous and Latino people also significantly more likely than white people to be killed by the police.
In the wake of the protests following the 1991 acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers who repeatedly beat Black motorist Rodney King, UE’s General Executive Board declared that “we demand increased federal funding to our cities and states for jobs and social programs to eliminate the economic devastation” that fueled the uprising. Instead, the decades since have seen a bipartisan consensus that the way to deal with social problems is to direct funds — and, increasingly, military equipment — to the police. The share of municipal budgets allotted to police departments has risen consistently over the last four decades, with police now accounting for between 20 and 45 percent of cities’ discretionary spending.
In 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the UE board noted that “Local police departments are being transformed into municipal armies, equipped and deployed for combat, which treat residents as ‘the enemy’ rather than as the constituents whom they are committed to protect and serve.” Just as our bloated military-industrial complex leads to unnecessary wars and military interventions overseas, police forces that are too well-funded and too well-armed have come to be seen as the solution to all of the problems in our communities. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and too many others are not the result of “a few bad apples” — they are the product of an institution rooted in the violent control of working people and BIPOC communities. Small scale reforms, outlawing police practices that should never have been allowed in the first place, are nowhere close to a full solution. Reforms have been heralded many times before, none of which have seriously dented the systemic problems in American policing.
Most police are drawn from working-class families. However, they then become part of an institution that is used for racist and anti-worker purposes. We understand and support the right of any group of workers to organize, but 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. These organizations have colluded with racist and anti-worker politicians to obtain contracts that effectively make prosecution of most law-breaking by police almost impossible — something none of the rest of us can negotiate. Some have been used to give cover to far-right white nationalists who have made their way onto police forces. Police are given a power that no other worker has, the right to use lethal force, and with that power must come high levels of accountability. When they feel like they can do whatever they want, they are a threat to all working people, and especially to BIPOC communities, whose voices have historically been ignored.
The recent protests have been large, multiracial, insistent, and composed largely of the working class, including UE members. They have been held not only in big cities, but also in small towns across the U.S. Many protesters, especially younger people, understand the connection between racist police murders and the role of police in suppressing the working class. The Movement for Black Lives and other organizations involved in the protests have broad pro-worker agendas. We encourage all UE locals to support the protests and to consider holding solidarity actions in the workplace, whether it is taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, wearing stickers or buttons, or otherwise engaging their members in this critical issue.
It is in the increasing numbers of working people who are willing to engage in aggressive struggles for justice that we find hope for the future of our country, and we urge all in labor to join in this movement.