Workers Power Against Police Brutality and Racist Terror
Submitted on Wed, 01/27/2016 - 12:03am
By the Life Long Wobbly - January 18, 2016
The Chicago Teachers Step Up – What does it mean?
The decision of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to participate in the Black Friday protests against police brutality is an important step forward, advancing both the struggle against the Chicago police department, and allowing the CTU to flex its muscles before the end of its contract. Chicago Teachers voted overwhelmingly to support a strike in their recent strike authorization vote, and if they can win another strike as they did in 2012, it would be an incredibly important victory for the working class around the country. It would show that education workers can fight and win, especially if they have united with the broader working class around issues such as institutional racism.
The simmering rage against Chicago’s blatantly racist, terrorist, secret prison-operating police department provides an important backdrop. US anti-labor law illegitimately limits what workers can strike over; if the teachers go on strike, and demand the removal of police from school campuses, or defunding of the police force, that would make their strike “illegal” in the eyes of the state. Chicago teachers have an important choice. Even if the teachers go on strike and don’t say a word about the police, the CPD is intimately tied to Rahm Emanuel’s austerity regime, and a teachers’ strike could strengthen and build on the movement against police brutality and terror. However, if the teachers do explicitly include anti-police demands in their strike, and stick by them even when threatened with injunction, they could really inspire the rest of the working class in Chicago to mobilize and support them. A victory in that case would also show that workers can successfully take on the system of anti-labor laws in this country, particularly those which declare certain kinds of strikes “illegal”.
Could teachers and other education workers strike to remove police from schools? Nothing could stop them from putting this into their demands. If a teachers union prioritized “cops off campus”, and waged a strike on the level of Chicago in 2012 or Seattle earlier this year, this would be a massive step forward. This would be particularly powerful to the degree that it spread beyond the teachers to include other education workers. Of course, any industrial action for “cops off campus” would meet bitter resistance from the city administration, at the same time that the national media, the Democratic Party, and – most importantly – the national unions would stop at nothing to sabotage this action, and force or cajole the workers into moderating their demands.
This is why militant education workers would have to prepare for this struggle, beginning by consciously identifying with the victims of police brutality, against the police rather than with them. An initiative to strike for “cops off campus” might need years before education workers actually have the strength and organization to pull it off – but the situation in the US over the last several years has also been very fluid, and things could develop much quicker than we might expect.
“Cops off campus”, a slogan which came out of the struggles at the University of California around 2009, is just one example of an achievable revolutionary demand. The left wing of capitalism can articulate very specific and imaginable goals, such as body cameras or community policing – but these “demands”, even if granted, would only reinforce the legitimacy of the police. Revolutionaries should try to find fault lines in the struggle against the police that accomplish two things – 1) just like with anything else, we want to inspire and unite broader parts of the working class to find common interest and take action together; 2) we should articulate ways that workers can act to directly reduce the power, presence, and legitimacy of police, so that they can imagine winning, and know when they are doing it.
Education workers have a very specific ability to use their power as workers to reduce the power of police in our society, both by removing their ability to assault students, and by reducing their social legitimacy. But they aren’t the only ones.
How else are workers taking job action against police – and how could they?
Red Atlanta has done a good job finding actions that fast food workers have taken against police. Most importantly, many of the people on the ground in the Ferguson rebellion were fast food workers, many of whom had previously been involved in Fight For 15, where they had gotten experience organizing. Also notable is that when FF15 leadership called “strikes” around the country, they deliberately avoided strikes in St Louis or Ferguson in the name of “peace” and “calm”, instead bussing protestors from Ferguson/St Louis to other cities. Beyond this, there have been low-level actions, such as workers writing “pig” on burrito wrappers or otherwise making police know they are unwelcome.
There was also the infamous “hands up, don’t ship” action which was organized by IWW members working at UPS last fall. In this case, workers in the sorting facility researched one of the businesses that shipped through their facility to police departments around the country, and found that a lot of the material being shipped was racist training material. The workers temporarily asserted their power on the shop floor by refusing to ship packages coming from this company.
This shows a path that workers could take even if they don’t directly interact with police at work on a daily basis, as teachers or fast food workers do. For example, workers who build Dodge Chargers (in Windsor, Ontario) could refuse to build any which are destined for police departments. Even a short work stoppage could build on the recent success of workers at Fiat-Chrysler who voted down the first proposed contract, which would have cemented the two-tier contract, and which the union leadership was trying to ram through as quick as possible. Workers know a lot about the commodities they create or handle, and can find creative ways to register their opposition to police through job action.
As Bob Kroll, the white supremacist president of the Minneapolis Fraternal Order of Police, personifies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the struggle against police brutality and the struggle against white supremacist terror are the same. When the cops take off their badges, they put on their hoods – or maybe we should say, when the Klan take off their hoods, they put on their badges. The recent struggles at the University of Missouri show the power that workers have to fight against white supremacy, and the strike by the football players in particular has some very explosive potential. The exploitation of unpaid college athletes has been a situation ripe for organizing for decades, as Kareem Abdul –Jabbar has pointed out, but the unpaid labor of college athletes also has a racial component (which should not come as a surprise, in this country): 40% of unpaid college basketball players and 30% of unpaid college football players are Black, compared to 13% of the country in general. In addition to the football team, the graduate students, who held a short strike when they announced their union drive a few months ago, also held a two-day strike against the University’s support for campus racism. This joint strike by football players and graduate students is an excellent example of how political strikes can win important gains, especially when workers have organized themselves without workplace contractualism. For contrast, during the many large struggles at the University of California since 2008, the leadership of the unions has almost always fallen back on the no-strike clauses to prevent any industrial action, even after reformers won the leadership of the grad students union in 2011.
This kind of solidarity across different groups of university workers is no doubt part of what forced the removal of the university president and chancellor, but we also have to imagine that the heads of the NCAA, who have an empire built off of the unpaid labor of student athletes, are losing sleep at the possibility of a rebellion and possible union drive among college athletes spreading across the country.
Delegitimize, Disaffiliate, Disband Police Unions
Part of the enduring strength of the police in our society comes from the legitimacy they are given as “regular joes”, “part of the 99%”, or most dangerously, “union brothers and sisters”. This is something that revolutionaries have to struggle against, especially within the labor movement.
The recent resolution that came from the previously-mentioned graduate students union at the University of California, calling for the expulsion of a police union from the AFL-CIO, is a welcome break from decades of support that labor leaders have given police. When Oscar Grant was murdered, and his assassin walked free, the UFCW grocery workers’ local that Oscar was a member of said nothing, nor did the union for BART workers, who later prepared to strike while demanding “increased security”. In fact, aside from the police “union”, the only unions in the Bay Area who said or did anything seem to have been the IWW and the longshore workers. Fast forward a few years, and it’s a different picture, although not necessarily a better one: speaking in Missouri after Mike Brown’s murder, the head of the AFL-CIO said that “our brother killed our sister’s son”, acknowledging Mike’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, as a union sister at the same time that he acknowledged Mike’s killer as a “union brother.”
The inclusion of police as “union brothers and sisters” blurs the lines by simultaneously legitimizing cops, and delegitimizing any industrial action against them. To stick with the example of education workers who might strike for “cops off campus”, there would be very loud voices in the labor bureaucracy arguing that they can’t strike against their “brothers and sisters” in the Fraternal Order of Police. The degree of legitimacy that police unions have directly affects the morale of workers who might try to take industrial action against police – attacking that legitimacy creates more space for industrial action.
For those of us who believe that workers have much more power on their job than in a union hall, there is a real question about whether it’s worthwhile to try to organize for resolutions at union meetings. To take an example, many unions (including the IWW) have passed resolutions in favor of Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. These sorts of resolutions, in themselves, do nothing to change the actual balance of power in the workplace or society at large. While BDS is important, and the resolutions might not seem to cause any harm, this kind of resolution can often function as a “left cover” for union bureaucracies that are deathly allergic to any actual class struggle. By creating this “left cover”, the bureaucracy can even incorporate and neutralize left-wing union members, encouraging them to focus their energy on maneuvering in union meetings instead of building shop-floor solidarity. (For example, even prominent activists in Britain’s Labor Party have pointed out that union bureaucrats “push out-of-favour members towards party activity to keep them away from industrial work.”)
But is it always useless or even counter-productive to organize for a union resolution? I think that there are cases where both the process of organizing, and the potential resolution, can play a part in larger processes, especially when it is against a reactionary national consensus that the union bureaucracy plays a part in, and will have a hard time even allowing lip service to. For example, resolutions during the Vietnam war against the AFL-CIO’s official pro-war stance, or resolutions against Jim Crow during the forties and fifties. In these cases, organizing for the resolutions is part of larger class movements, and if they are achieved then it is a marker of victory for those movements, as well as a moral symbol for others that the consensus does not hold, and that they can organize against it. The leaders of the 1970 USPS wildcat strike brought anti-Vietnam War resolutions to their union convention, along with resolutions to force the union leadership to protect and defend strikers against the government. They saw a relationship between their union activity and opposition to the Vietnam War – if they hadn’t seen it before, the relevance of the war was certainly brought home to them when Nixon tried to break the strike with the National Guard. The AFL-CIO leadership had set the Vietnam War as an ultimate taboo, which it was unthinkable to mention except to say that Labor was behind it 100%; by striking over the heads of their union leaders, and then publicly discussing opposition to the war, postal workers made it visible to themselves as well as other union members that union bureaucrats could be outmaneuvered, and that labor opposition to the war existed, and was acceptable. Keep in mind that this was the same year as the “Hard Hat Riot”, when New York union leaders had organized their members (including postal workers) to attack students who were protesting the Kent State murders and the invasion of Cambodia.
Returning to the present, the question is whether anti-police resolutions are more like BDS and other resolutions, which are progressive but acceptable to the bureaucracy, and which end up pulling left-wing activists out of the shop floor and into the union hall? Or, like the resolutions against Jim Crow or the Vietnam War, could anti-police resolutions begin to call into question the entire consensus of the employing class, a consensus that keeps the bureaucrats in their offices, comfortably removed from the workplace? In either case, I don’t think that IWWs or revolutionaries in unions should focus mechanically on promoting anti-police resolutions. I hope it’s clear that our focus should be on promoting workplace-based action that strengthens working-class organization at the same time that it weakens the capitalist state, including the police; and that delegitimizing the police and their organizations will be both an enabling cause and a result of that action. In some cases, workers will bring anti-police resolutions to their unions independently of us (as the UC Grad Students did), and in other cases, IWW members who are also in other unions could consider whether bringing anti-police resolutions would support their organizing.
In particular, there are a few unions who have locals of cops and prison guards, alongside other workers. AFSCME, the main union for municipal workers, and SEIU, which is behind Fight for Fifteen, have an increasingly large focus on organizing prison guards, while UE, a supposedly “socialist” union, also represents police (local 222 is the “Connecticut Independent Labor/Police Union”). Members of AFSCME or UE could bring forward resolutions calling for the expulsion or disaffiliation of those locals, while members of any union could bring forward resolutions supporting the one from the UC graduate students, and asserting that police (and prison guards) should not be considered as “union brothers and sisters”, but rather as what they are: our enemies in blue. Any institution which defends and protects them when they commit murder, which obscures their links to organized racist groups, and which organizes them to intimidate any critics or opponents – as police unions do – needs to be delegitimized by our movements, disaffiliated from our organizations, and ultimately disbanded.
Possible next steps for the IWW
The Twin Cities IWW branch was able to have a big impact when things became critical during the 4th precinct occupation in November. I can’t speak for that branch, and encourage local members to write their own analysis. However, two broad trends seem to stand out: they have consistently engaged in anti-racist and anti-police brutality work alongside their workplace organizing in recent years; and they are ambitious – as a group, they have the confidence to believe that they can have a big impact.
These are two factors that we, as an organization, struggle with beyond the level of individual branches. Although a lot of our members are generally anti-cop, very few of our branches have much experience engaging in anti-racist or anti-police brutality work. More critically, we have a crisis of ambition and confidence beyond the branch level – we have a hard time imagining that we, as an organization, can actually have a decisive influence on the course of the class struggle in the US (or internationally).
However, it’s been clear since Ferguson (maybe even since Oscar Grant) that movements against police brutality are taking on a mass character, and will have a growing impact on the class struggle in the US. Eventually, the working class will be ready to really move, and any organization which has ignored the importance of struggles to reduce the power, presence, or legitimacy of police in our society will be left standing in the dust – and rightly so.
Our union recently committed to have deeper discussions of our strategic outlook during future Conventions – specifically mentioning movements against police brutality as an area where we could have a bigger impact. Our Convention is an important part of our member-driven democracy, but it will only be bear fruit if we have serious discussion in our branches during the year. The most important step we can take as a Union to meaningfully engage with anti-police struggles is for branches to engage, discuss the results, and bring their ideas to Convention.
That engagement will take different forms, but here are some ways it might happen:
- Participate in a coordinated way, as IWW branches, in local anti-police brutality and anti-racist movements;
- Agitate for workplace or industrial action which directly confronts the power, presence, or legitimacy of police – and where possible, organize these actions, like at the Minneapolis UPS hub;
- IWW members are also members of other unions might bring resolutions to delegitimize and disaffiliate cop unions;
- When we become aware of workers taking action against the police, such as fast-food workers expressing anti-police sentiment, we should publicly support the stand that those workers are taking, and publicly defend their right to take these stands without facing repercussion at work. Besides being worthwhile in itself, this might help us to stand out for fast food workers who are looking for a more militant alternative than the SEIU, who see the connection between police oppression, structural racism, and workplace exploitation.
The rage at police violence against people of color is constantly simmering, sometimes boiling over. This, in itself, is an important marker of a new confrontational attitude in the working class. In limited ways, this confrontational attitude is even expressing itself in the workplace. At the same time, there were more strikes and threats of strikes in 2015 than any year in recent US history. The labor bureaucracy will do everything they can to keep these two trends from merging, as will the official civil rights leaders. Yet workers – fast food workers, education workers, transportation workers, auto workers – will quickly find that any effective strike must break the law and therefore invite police repression, and they might also learn, as Chicago teachers have, that mobilizing against police brutality will inspire members and build important alliances with other parts of the working class.
The IWW is uniquely positioned to agitate and organize for workplace action against police brutality, and to agitate and organize for mass industrial action that rips US anti-labor law completely apart. Serious discussion and ambitious engagement in the class movements around us will bring major results. By acting as a united organization, we can achieve the position that the Twin Cities IWW has, on a national scale. And then we can really start to shake things up!
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.