Lezaic: Police Unions Shouldn’t Exist


Ivana Martinez

Police in riot gear surround and block in protesters in the streets of Salt Lake City on July 9, 2020. (Photo by Ivana Martinez | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Angela Lezaic, Opinion Writer


As we find ourselves amid a rising labor movement, it’s crucial to weed out the people who don’t belong in it — the police.

Unions, one of the most powerful tools of the labor movement, exist to protect vulnerable workers from employer and state exploitation. Police exist to protect those same employers and state, yet they still form their own unions, or at least a twisted version of them.

Police unions uphold a violent state and give their members limitless impunity. As the antithesis of everything the labor movement stands for, cops shouldn’t be entitled to the same protections that the working-class fights tooth and nail for.

‘Unions’ or Fraternities?

Police unions don’t serve the same purpose that real unions do. While they are used for things like wage bargaining, police unions primarily protect cops from accountability. They hinder investigations and interrogations into police misconduct, often giving officers notices and preventing questioning of officers involved in police shootings for up to 48 hours after an incident. Some police union contracts also allow for the destruction of disciplinary records, protect officers from civil suits, limit internal investigations and discredit civilian complaints.

Two of the main police unions in the U.S. are the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Union of Police Associations. Calling them unions is a stretch, however. In the words of Long Beach resident Thomas Bailey in an LA Times letter to the editor, “The paradox of police unions is that they don’t behave like unions at all. They comport themselves more like secret societies. Note the name of the largest example, the Fraternal Order of Police.”

The protection cops receive from these frat-like secret societies becomes especially problematic when considering that nearly two-thirds of American police officers are part of a union. Alongside firefighters, cops have the highest unionization rates in the country. In 2017, approximately 75-80% of the 800,000 cops in the U.S. were members of a union.

The Hypocrisy of Police Unions

The irony of their high unionization rates is a slap in the face for workers everywhere. Historically, the police have always been on the other side of the picket fence and staunchly anti-union. They have an extremely violent history of shutting down labor strikes and unions to protect businesses and private property.

This is nothing new. Labor scholar Paul F. Clark writes, “[Businesses] enlisted the government as the defender of capital and property rights, and police officers were the foot soldiers who defended the status quo.” Police have always functioned to terrorize workers fighting for their rights and basic needs, and we see this happening to this day. Most recently, Amazon Labor Union organizer Christian Smalls and his fellow union members faced harassment and arrest threats from cops hired by Amazon.

But despite their efforts to sabotage real unions, cops are quick to support their own. While workers have the hardest time unionizing for better working conditions and rights — largely because of cops — police have no issue unionizing to avoid accountability. They remain anti-union unless it comes to protecting themselves from the consequences of their violence.

No Place for Cop Unions

Police are not part of the working class. For one, they have the power and protection to arrest, maim and kill. They certainly take advantage of this, especially when given impunity.

There is a stark increase in police misconduct and violence after unionizing and gaining guaranteed protection from consequences. Following a state supreme court ruling that legitimized police unions, violent misconduct rose by 40%. There was a particular increase in sexual assault and excessive force. Cops also killed a higher rate of Black and Brown people following police unionization.

The largest union that protects cops from the consequences of such murders is the Fraternal Order of Police. Unsurprisingly, it is also mainly composed of white men. Both the FOP and the IUPO have worked closely with white supremacist groups around the country, and in many cases have an overlap of members. Its members have advocated for eugenics and racial segregation, as well as defended Nazis.

Police unions hold a disturbing amount of political power, which they used to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and 2020. Additionally, they are notorious for lobbying against police reform legislation.

This reality is repulsive enough without encouragement from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the U.S.’s largest federation of unions. While not every police union is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the ones that are have the power to strongarm union politics within the federation. Other unions have called for the AFL-CIO to push out the IUPA, but the resolution was ultimately rejected because of this very power.

We cannot allow the legitimacy of police unions. They have co-opted and benefited from a form of protection created by the working class for the working class. Yet in the same breath, they play a key role in our oppression. They should not get to hide behind contracts meant for workers.

Cops will never belong in our movements. We can’t lose sight of the history of the labor movement and what it stands for.


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