Labor demands police reform — and in the process, confronts its troubled past

Structural racism in the US is tied to economic inequality — meaning unions have a perfect chance to foment change

Published June 14, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

Workers clean graffiti off of an entrance sign to the AFL-CIO headquarters that was vandalized during overnight unrest, June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Workers clean graffiti off of an entrance sign to the AFL-CIO headquarters that was vandalized during overnight unrest, June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

All it took to awaken our nation to the racism that has been the bedrock of law enforcement since slavery was a once-in-a-century pandemic and a video of the extrajudicial execution of a civilian in broad daylight.

After 400 years denying our need to expiate our original sin that was slavery, it remains to be seen if this awakening has enough juice to upend the winner-take-all capitalist framework that's been the knee on the neck of people of color from slavery to our present day.

One has to only look at the dramatic racial income and household wealth disparities that have continued to increase no matter which party was in the White House or who controlled Congress.

As MarketWatch recently reported, the typical white household has ten times as much wealth as an African American one.

Consider that the median household net worth for whites is $171,000, while the median Black net worth was just $17,600 according to data from the Federal Reserve.

Yet if you dig a little deeper into the data, things are actually feudal when it comes to the great American racial wealth divide. According to the Boston Federal Reserve, a U.S.-born, Black household living in that city only "had a median net worth of $8 compared to $247,500 for whites in the same area," as Marketwatch noted.

This has been building for generations.

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt excluded domestic and agricultural workers from labor protections like overtime — protections which lifted the circumstances of factory and mill workers. Coming out of the Great Recession, it was communities of color that were hurt the most by the unprosecuted mortgage-backed security crime spree.

Even the labor movement, which has historically uplifted the nation's middle class, has had a dubious track record when it came to race in America. There was often heavy resistance to opening up union ranks to people of color in lucrative trades in the construction industry.

"It's a complicated story," said Joshua Freeman, a professor of Labor History at the City University of New York Graduate Center. "Going back to the 1960s, the union movement was not on the same page [with the civil rights movement]. You had a number of unions that very strongly supported the civil rights movement."

"If you look back at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington," Freeman continued, "there were unions signs all over while others were reluctant. The AFL-CIO never endorsed the March on Washington and there were some white unions that resisted integration and dug their heels in."

As Freeman sees it, the current tidal wave of support for Black Lives Matter is linked to the disproportionate COVID-19 death toll in communities of color — the very same neighborhoods where so many essential workers live, some who are unionized and many who are not.

"Clearly the COVID-19 epidemic once again revealed structural inequality along racial lines in the United States," Freeman said. "African Americans have gotten the disease in greater numbers proportionately than whites, and the poorly paid frontline jobs have been held by African Americans. There is a knowledge of that, and it probably fed some of the rage about the killing of George Floyd and police practices."

As COVID-19 was laying siege to the New York metro region, killing well over a thousand people every day, Gov. Cuomo heaped praise on the essential workforce. Cuomo even pushed for a hazard pay hourly premium to be paid to those who put themselves (and by proxy their families) at risk by working during the pandemic.

Yet Freeman believes that as the country tries to put the pandemic lock down behind it and the economic impact of the Trump Depression is felt more deeply, these essential workers may have lost their leverage.

"For a little while there was a broader recognition that these essential workers were underpaid and not getting the protection and benefits they deserve," he said. "But I am struck by how quickly that seems to be fading away. Companies have ended their hazard pay and suddenly it is back to normal for all those grocery workers, transit workers, home health aides and all the other workers that were being hailed just weeks ago. I am not seeing long term improvements. . . . it appears we are going back to the way things were."

At a Stop & Shop grocery store in Monmouth County, New Jersey a union supermarket worker, who was African American, said she expected to soon lose the 10 percent premium pay secured by her union back in March.

"I was saying that the day they take that premium pay away from us I take this off," she said, pulling at her mask. "It's either a real public health emergency or it's not. They can't have it both ways."

The truth is that's the way American vulture capitalism has always rolled, sucking the life out of people to amass wealth and then discarding them.  

Yet there is reason to believe that in the 21st century a more diverse labor movement is more prepared to embrace Black Lives Matter, and in the process link our nation's structural racism with the economic inequalities that perpetuate it.

In a June 6 joint letter, the leadership of some of New York's largest unions blasted elected officials for a "profound lack of leadership" when it came to addressing "the failure of the NYPD to act with appropriate restraint" during the mass street protests that were sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in police custody.

Several days later, some of the signatories said their broadside produced tangible results. They pointed to Mayor de Blasio ending the nighttime curfew early and significant progress on police accountability measures in Albany including the repeal of 50a, a state law which kept police personnel files from the public.

The signatories included labor leaders such as Barbara Bowen, President, Professional Staff Congress, CUNY; Kyle Bragg, President, 32BJ SEIU; Beverley Brakeman, Director, UAW Region 9-; Henry Garrido, Executive Director, DC 37, AFSCME; George Gresham, President, 1199 SEIU; Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, President, NYSNA; and Dennis Trainor, Vice President, CWA District 1.

Collectively, the unions represent close to one million workers from both the private and public sector throughout the northeast.

The signatories also took elected officials to task for "their inability to propose and implement substantive reforms that promote real change. This lack of action combined with a lack of empathy, patience, and respect for protesters gathering to say Black Lives Matter is more than a series of missteps — it is a continued danger to New Yorkers for whom law enforcement's responsibility to 'protect and serve' is taken as a suggestion instead of a mandate."

The statement continued. "As labor unions, we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have risen up to protest against state violence towards people of color, systemic racism, and police brutality. We cannot and will not stand down as we witness daily the violent response of the NYPD without reprimand nor consequence."

In other parts of the country the labor movement is confronting police unions when their leadership tries to justify police misconduct or cast protestors as the problem.

This fuller embrace by the labor movement of the police accountability movement could take us much closer to the "mountain top" Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced in April 3, 1968 when he spoke in Memphis to support the cause of the essential sanitation workers — the day before he was killed.

In that speech he clearly linked racial and economic justice with worker solidarity. The mayor of Memphis had refused to recognize the sanitation workers' union; a few days before his speech, some protestors threw bricks in storefronts and the police responded with tear gas and nightsticks.

"You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula to doing it," King said. "He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."

A half-century later, we finally maybe be poised to heed his instruction.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Afl-cio Commentary George Floyd Labor Pandemic Police Unions