Union power in the United States has hit a nadir. Less than eleven percent of the labor force is unionized—a lower percentage than at any point since World War II.
Twenty-eight states (including six since 2000) have passed “right to work” laws that restrict the ability of unions to collect dues from workers and reach exclusive agreements with employers.
Recent years have seen union opponents aggressively (and often successfully) litigate claims that would make it much more difficult for unions to organize workers and raise money.
At the same time, “gig economy” companies, globalization, and the forces of neoliberalism have undermined worker solidarity and the logic of labor law.
Despite significant donations to Democratic political campaigns, unions have had limited success in convincing politicians on either side of the aisle to prioritize positions or push for legislation that specifically benefits organized labor and its members.
But not all unions are similarly situated, and not all have floundered. As private-sector unions have struggled, some public-sector unions remain powerful political forces, extracting concessions from government employers and steering policies to benefit their members.
Enter an incongruous manifestation of contemporary labor’s power: the police union.
In many ways, police unions flout both traditional assumptions about organized labor and contemporary framings of the new labor movement.
Where unions often swing left, police unions swing right.
Where much modern labor organizing focuses on low-wage workers, police unions protect higher-wage professionals.
Where unionism and antiracism sometimes have travelled hand-in-hand,
police unions still represent predominantly white workers and frequently take public stands that are hostile to racial justice or that express outright racism.
Indeed, after decades of disinterest, scholars recently have begun to study police unions because of their role in hampering criminal justice reform, shielding officers accused of violence against people of color, and defending racially disparate policing practices.
In a moment when labor law scholarship tends to treat the interests of unions and the political left as inextricably linked,
police unions provide a powerful counterexample. Or do they?
This Essay examines the strange case of police unions and asks how they are (and are not) representative of U.S. unionism. More pointedly, this Essay asks what increasingly common critiques of police unions should mean for policing reform and the future of public-sector unionism. In an effort to construct a more nuanced picture of police unions’ functions, this Essay situates the role of police unions within two disparate scholarly debates: (1) the literature on policing reform and (2) the literature on public-sector unions. How are police unions different from other public-sector unions, and how might critiques and defenses of public-sector unions apply to police unions? Can scholars of policing avoid questions that plague (or define) the literature on the rights and social power of workers? Can labor law scholars continue to speak of “labor” as a monolith without grappling with the problematic aspects of police unions? And, perhaps more pointedly, how much does scholarly and political discomfort with police unions reflect a deeper discomfort with unions that are powerful and with collective action by workers other than the most marginalized?
In tackling organized labor’s place in law enforcement, this Essay engages with an emerging literature that takes police unions seriously as a significant component of the modern criminal system.
For decades, criminal procedure scholars have focused on judicial opinions as defining and shaping police practices.
They framed the law of policing in terms of constitutional decisions rendered by appellate judges.
Formal and informal rules crafted outside of the courtroom by municipalities, police unions, and police departments had little place in the scholarly discourse surrounding and critiquing police misconduct.
But, spurred by the rise of the Movement for Black Lives
and greater public access to police union contracts,
police unions and their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are becoming a bigger part of the conversation.
Although commentators focused on police unions may have different approaches and political commitments, they tend to articulate similar critiques. Much criticism of police unions focuses on their obstructionist nature and how they prioritize the interests of their members over the interests of the public at large and the communities they police.
These critiques are compelling—police unions shield officers and block outsider intervention in the regulation of policing. But, taken seriously, they sound like critiques of unions in general, not just police unions.
To the extent that public-sector unionism remains a social good because of concerns for economic inequality and worker power,
wholeheartedly embracing these critiques seems like a risky proposition. To the extent that the critiques of police unions ring true, are these critiques of unions, police, or local government decisionmaking? How we answer this question is not simply a matter of theoretical consistency;
it should be an essential component of determining what “police reform” should look like and also of understanding the role of police, unions, and the state in the criminal system and its attendant race- and class-based hierarchies.
In addressing these questions, my argument unfolds in four Parts. Part I describes the dominant critique of police unions. This Part focuses on the image of the union as unaccountable, obstructionist, and conservative.
Further, this Part situates these critiques within a broader set of concerns about police violence against people of color and other marginalized communities. Part II resituates police unions (and such critiques) within a different set of scholarly and political debates—those regarding the role of public-sector unions. In this Part, I argue that the critiques articulated in Part I resonate with the work of anti-union forces on the political right and among technocratic or neoliberal voices on the left. By way of analogy, in this Part I focus on teachers’ unions and other controversial public-sector unions. Part III seeks to test this analogy by examining a range of ways in which we might distinguish police unions from other public-sector unions. This Part asks whether critiques of police unions could be accurate, while not sweeping in other public-sector unionism or implicitly supporting a broader anti-union agenda. Perhaps police unions are just different from other unions for some reason—for example, the ability to use force against civilians, the social dynamics and power imbalances that make even rank-and-file officers more like managers (vis-à-vis civilians), the amount of bargaining power they can exercise, or the political affiliations of the unions and their members.
Finally, Part IV steps back to identify the weaknesses in these distinctions. Ultimately, I argue that the challenge in articulating a theory of what makes police unions different highlights the problem with police, the problem with the way scholars think about unions, and the problems with the critiques of police unions. If what makes police unions objectionable is their views and/or the conduct of police, this speaks to a problem with police—full stop. (The problems with the unions are only issues by extension.) Adopting this understanding of the critiques would speak to a radical vision of police reform—the problem is not that police are unionized but that they have so much power by virtue of constitutional doctrine, their monopoly on state violence, and so forth. This is a critique that resonates with the growing literature on police abolition and is properly understood as a critique of police as an institution. If what makes the unions and their conduct objectionable is the commitment to their members’ interests over those of the public at large, though, then the critiques are properly understood as critiques of unions, or of public-sector unions. Adopting this understanding would make these critiques resonate troublingly with calls for “civil service reform” and dismantling of the union as a social, political, and economic institution. At the very least, this approach might suggest that support for unions rests on an image of workers’ collectives as relatively powerless.