Less than two weeks after Seattle police nearly killed a protester with a flash bang to the chest, a local labor council has expelled their union. The Martin Luther King Labor Council, a powerful organizing body that lobbies for pro-labor policies and candidates, voted to remove the Seattle Police Officers Guild, or SPOG, on Wednesday evening. “Any union that is part of our labor council needs to be actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large. Unfortunately, the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild has failed to do that work and are no longer part of our council,” the council tweeted after the vote.
SPOG could eventually rejoin the MLK Labor Council if it meets accountability criteria set for it by its peer unions. But it doesn’t seem much inclined to try.
Local NBC News affiliate KING5.com reports that in the days leading up the vote, SPOG had failed to meet several demands sent to it by the council. Among them was a requirement for SPOG to put out a statement acknowledging “that racism is a structural problem in our society and in law enforcement that until addressed creates undue harm on Black and BIPOC communities.” The council had also asked SPOG leaders to meet with members of its executive council and to participate in a planned “working space” to address racism within the police union.
According to a report in The Stranger, arguments against expulsion mostly came from building trades, firefighters, machinists, and Metro workers. Joe Mizrahi, the secretary-treasure for UFCW Local 21, told the publication that the expulsion demand “organically came from rank-and-file members of color” in the Highline Education Association, which represents area teachers. “Kicking out SPOG isn’t the end game,” Mizrahi told The Stranger. “We all want to be deeply involved in what police reform looks like. We just knew we couldn’t be able to genuinely engage in that conversation with SPOG still in the labor council.”
Expulsion won’t disband SPOG as a union, but the move will isolate it from the rest of the labor movement in the region, and that’s a blow. The MLK Labor Council is large and politically influential. Until last night, it represented around 100,000 individuals from 150 unions, and is affiliated with the national AFL-CIO labor federation, which has declined to take similar action regarding the International Union of Police Associations. The council’s vote suggests that the AFL-CIO’s position may not be sustainable over the long term. To date, over 5,400 people have signed a petition from the No Cop Unions campaign supporting not just the expulsion of IUPA from the AFL-CIO but for other unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees, to terminate their relationships with correctional officers, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The police, meanwhile, continue to supply critics with new reasons to oppose their memberships in local and national federations. KING5.com reports that the MLK Labor Council said it held other member unions to the same standards on racial justice and SPOG had failed to meet them. The Seattle police also face a lawsuit over the violent methods they used to repress recent Black Lives Matter protests. Since protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor began, an Atlanta police officer shot Rayshard Brooks in the back, killing him; the officer, Garrett Rolfe, now faces a felony murder charge. Ongoing acts of police brutality in response to the protests also increase pressure on labor leaders who would otherwise prefer to remain neutral.
The collective-bargaining process is designed to shield workers from the petty tyrannies of their bosses. But police unions like SPOG deploy the same shield against the public, including workers. From lobbying against basic transparency measures to calling out sick when one of their own is charged with felony murder, unionized cops stoke a debate that might not resolve in their favor. The labor movement isn’t just grappling with the future of police unions. It faces deeper questions about the nature of policing itself. The long history of the fight for safe workplaces and fair wages repeats the same basic conflict. Workers win progress despite bosses — and despite violent state actors, too. The men and women who break up protests might have no place in the labor movement at all.