Unions Split, Take Sides After Ferguson

While the progressive movement rallies around Michael Brown, some service unions and police unions are dividing.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

WASHINGTON — This weekend, local organized labor will rally in support of Michael Brown — and local organized labor will keep working in support of the police and Darren Wilson, the man who shot Brown.

Brown’s death has united progressives and Democrats, while bolstering growing coalitions skeptical of police tactics on the conservative side of the aisle. But labor is split: Organizations that represent law enforcement are warning against demilitarizing police forces and rushing to judgement on Wilson. At the same time, unions that represent big numbers of minority workers are putting their resources into vocal criticisms of police.

In New York City, unions representing teachers and health care workers expect to bring thousands to an anti-police violence march Saturday let by Al Sharpton. Meanwhile, on Friday, a Washington-area police union was celebrating being the largest donor to the controversial GoFundMe site aimed at funneling money to Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson.

“We cannot live in communities where men are targeted and can be killed by the police,” said Chelsea-Lyn Rudder, spokesperson for SEIU 1199, a 400,000-member local of the larger Service Employees International Union. SEIU 1199 is a lead sponsor for this weekend’s March For Justice For Victims Of Police Brutality, an effort led by Sharpton aimed at drawing attention to Brown’s death as well as other high-profile police-related deaths like Sean Bell and Eric Garner.

Rudder said SEIU 1199 was invited to the protest by Sharpton, but the union’s participation is personal.

“Sean Bell’s mother is an SEIU member,” Rudder said. She said that many of her union’s members have personal experiences with the kinds of police tactics they’re hoping to draw attention to at the march.

“A lot of our members are people of color,” she said. “It’s not superfluous to them, these are issues that they’re actually living.”

The United Federation of Teachers, New York’s subsidiary of the national American Federation Of Teachers, is also sponsoring the march. That’s led to an inter-union dispute.

“The UFT has other issues,” the leader of a city police union told the New York Post. “This is not their issue.”

Some police locals are rallying around Wilson. In Missouri, a national GoFundMe campaign in support of Wilson is now sending donations to a charity that appears to share an address with a St. Louis County police union.

In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, a Fraternal Order of Police Lodge donated $1,070 to the GoFundMe page set up for Wilson Thursday. BuzzFeed was unable to reach anyone at the Maryland state Fraternal Order of Police for comment.

“Our state as well as our locals operate not independently, but they make their own decisions,” said Tim Richards, a spokesman for the national Fraternal Order of Police.

At the national level, leaders are also urging caution before judging the Ferguson police or calling for them to lose their military-style equipment.

In a letter posted Thursday to the website of the International Union of Police Associations, a member of the AFL-CIO, IUPA president Sam Cabral took the side of the Ferguson cops.

“It is the American tradition that we sometimes have heartfelt and polar opposite views of the same event,” he wrote. “We welcome the federal microscope. We have lived with it for years.”

Conversely, another AFL-CIO member president, Joe Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers President, blamed Michael Brown’s death on “systemic problems.”

“This entire episode highlights systemic problems that still plague our nation — abject poverty, the lack of good jobs, an absence of racial diversity in the halls of power,” he wrote.

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