As union members gathered in the nation's capital over the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, some of the country's top labor leaders faced tough questions about how the movement can reconcile its support for racial justice with its embrace of police unions.
Over the last year, the AFL-CIO, America's largest federation of unions, has faced calls from some in its membership to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations.
At a union conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren interviewed AFL-CIO President Trumka, as well as some younger activists, including Bree Newsome, the woman who scaled the statehouse flagpole in South Carolina to take down the Confederate Flag.
Warren specifically pressed Trumka on labor's position regarding police unions and communities of color, quoting a speech the union leader gave in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown.
"Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother," Trumka said at the time. "Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is."
In response to Warren's questions, Trumka said the federation's Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, formed after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, has been speaking with union members on the ground about race in their communities, with the goal of creating a plan of action for labor.
But while Trumka emphasized the need for conversations between police and community members, and for mobilizing voters to turn out for the upcoming presidential election, younger organizers called for more direct public action.
Such actions were on display over the MLK Day weekend, when one Black Lives Matter-allied group targeted a police credit union. "BYP100 just occupied a Fraternal Order of the Police Bank in Chicago," the movement messaged its supporters. On Sunday, a blast went out: "Did you see the shut down of the Bay Bridge? Black resistance is the true legacy of the Civil Rights Movement."
Activists and union members both at the conference and protesting elsewhere throughout the weekend drew additional connections between their fight for police reform (and for the end of mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and prison labor) and the fights of working-class people of color.
Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, the organization that shut down the police credit union, has called for "taking the profit out of punishment," from ankle bracelets to bail bonds, while Newsome spoke at the conference about how mass incarceration often means that private companies profit off the unpaid labor of prisoners.
Such calls leave union leaders like Trumka threading a particularly difficult needle: trying to embracing a new wave of worker activism driven largely by minority communities, while not alienating the large, well-funded police unions that remain a major constituency of the union movement.
"When you think about things, you have a couple of different points of view," Trumka said. "You have police officers doing incredibly important work and very dangerous work... And then you have the citizens who need the police but in many communities are afraid of the police... I personally can’t imagine how it breaks your heart every day, to see your child walk out the door and wonder, 'Is my baby coming home at night?' Nobody should have to do that."
Trumka said that members were initially "reluctant" to talk, and the Commission on Racial and Economic Justice had to work to create an "atmosphere of trust" in the room when officers sit down to talk with community members, emphasizing the need for police not to feel "ambushed in the process but feel respected as well."
At one point Trumka admitted the process, which began nearly four years ago, is slow-going. "I thought it would be a little quicker," he said. "I really underestimated what it would take to get the trust in that room."
Some union members want the AFL-CIO to cut its ties with police unions.
In late July, a United Auto Workers (UAW) local chapter representing 13,000 workers in the University of California system formally called on the AFL-CIO to end its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), denouncing the union after Freddie Grey's death in police custody in Baltimore. “How can there ever be solidarity between law enforcement and the working class," the union group asked, "when elites call upon police and their organizations to quell mass resistance to poverty and inequality?”
The letter was a product of the UAW's Black Interests Coordinating Committee (BICC), formed in December 2014 after the acquittals of police in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and it recounts a history of police suppression of protest and complicity in race-related violence.
Asked about the letter at the conference Friday, Carmen Berkeley, the AFL-CIO's Civil, Human & Women's Rights Director, said the federation had no plans to end its affiliation with the IUPA.
"We are not in the business of kicking people out of unions," she said. "What we are in the business of is having conversations with our law enforcement brothers and sisters about how they can have different practices... I do think there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen between communities of color and law enforcement, and we want to be the bridge that helps them get there."
Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.
Contact Cora Lewis at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.