This article appeared originally in Crosscut and has been updated.
Twenty years ago, in the middle of historic mass protests against the World Trade Organization, police chased hundreds of peaceful protesters out of downtown, north on First Avenue and surrounded them just half a block beyond Seattle’s iconic Labor Temple, preparing for mass arrests.
It was December 1, 1999. As the police roundup unfolded, a group of us meeting inside the Labor Temple spilled out into the street. Ron Judd, the head of the King County Labor Council, whom I worked for at the time, was aghast to see the protesters essentially held at gunpoint. Judd announced publicly that any protester was welcome to find refuge in the Labor Temple, and that police were barred from entering the building. We stationed activists at the doors to enforce Judd’s order. As an officer shoved a nightstick at his neck, Judd, standing in the middle of First Avenue, called the deputy mayor to make sure his point got across to the political establishment: This police attack on protesters was an attack on all of labor, and the union movement would not sit idle.
For those of us standing on First Avenue that afternoon, that scene underscored a fundamental truth that has not changed over the years: There is no place in the house of labor for Seattle’s police.
Yet in the last twenty years, quite the opposite has happened: The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), historically unaffiliated with the union movement, joined the labor council in 2014 and exploited that affiliation to advance its hostile interests.
It’s been well past time to sever that relationship, and June 17’s decisive vote in the Martin Luther King County Labor Council to expel SPOG honors the basic union principle that an injury to one worker is indeed an injury to all. Notably, the 55%-45% delegate vote was a grassroots uprising, initiated by teachers union members and propelled forward by rank-and-file members from a wide range of unions. Both the council president and the council executive secretary—the body’s principal officer—cast votes against booting SPOG.
The US Justice Department determined, in late 2011, what Black and brown communities have known for decades—that the Seattle Police Department enacted systemic, racially discriminatory excessive use of force practices.
The subsequent years of court oversight have not changed the fundamentals of police violence in Seattle. Police and their political protectors have resisted true reform. In the eight years since the federal consent decree, whereby the federal government took watch over the use of force, Seattle police have killed twenty-eight more people—all working class and disproportionately people of color. No police officer has been held accountable for these killings.
Perhaps the most strategic step that SPOG undertook while under court oversight was to affiliate in late 2014 with the labor council, the county federation of local unions encompassing close to 100,000 workers. Coming at the beginning of national Black Lives Matter movement, SPOG’s affiliation was a savvy move. Unfortunately, the labor council leadership in 2014, which had completely turned over in the preceding years and was closely aligned with the city’s political establishment, was all too happy to welcome SPOG. By joining the labor council, SPOG could claim union bona fides while taking advantage of the council’s political chops and credibility.
SPOG affiliation turned out to be a disaster for working people in and out of unions, especially in Black and brown communities. And it marked yet another example of how far many unions have slid in recent decades from independent, militant, worker-led organizations to bureaucratized institutions whose leaders preferred closed-door hobnobbing with the political establishment over engaging and empowering rank-and-file union members.
The SPOG affiliation emboldened Seattle police to push back more aggressively against real reform. In 2018, SPOG negotiated a contract with Mayor Jenny Durkan that neutered modest police accountability measures that the Seattle City Council had adopted the previous year. SPOG, hand in hand with labor council leadership and the mayor, lobbied hard to win city council approval of the contract, claiming shamefully that the rollback of police accountability was necessary because of “union rights.”
Labor council leaders even threatened to run candidates against council members who opposed the SPOG-Durkan negotiated agreement. Surely police deserve good pay, but the labor council and the mayor combined the economic benefits with the accountability rollbacks in a single take-it-or-leave-it package. Only Councilmember Kshama Sawant (whom I now work for) joined with a diverse range of community organizations, along with a number of rank-and-file union members and some local union leaders, to oppose the SPOG contract.
The labor council leadership’s heavy-handed lobbying for the SPOG contract and their open allegiance to the mayor broadcast a clear message: The labor council leadership stands with the police and the political establishment, not the communities most impacted by police violence.
Since the SPOG contract approval, Seattle police have killed six more people, beginning in December 2018 with the killing of Iosia Faletogo (a former labor union member, from a family of union members), and most recently with the killing of an African American homeless man in mental distress, whom Seattle police shot five times in Queen Anne just one month ago.
When I signed my first union membership card decades ago, I was taught that a union is simply a group of workers who come together to fight for the things we need, and to fight to protect one another; that our interests as workers differ from the interests of our employers and from the economic and political elites; and that the only way we have power in dealing with them is to band together as workers.
Police guilds like SPOG, on the other hand, come together not to join with us in common struggle, but to amplify and legitimate their power to carry out what they are hired to do. Their job, under capitalism, is to serve as an armed, legally-sanctioned force acting on behalf of economic and political elites. In doing so, they are arrayed against other union members, and indeed the entire working class. That is not a union; it is a protectorate of the elite.
This conflict is exactly what played out on First Avenue two decades ago, at strikes over the years, as police forced open picket lines to allow strikebreakers through, on numerous protests against ICE offices safeguarded by armed cops, and most recently on our streets, as tens of thousands of Seattleites came out to join worldwide protests against police murders of Black and brown people.
If you still think SPOG is a union, similar to a union of health care workers, machinists, office workers or construction workers, ask yourself this: What other union fights ardently to enshrine their legal right to shoot and kill other people, and to evade public accountability for those killings?
By embracing SPOG over the past six years, the labor council associated our union movement with this systemic violence. Worse, the labor council’s embrace of SPOG facilitated and enabled racist, violent police behavior. That association was shameful and had to end, not just because of what SPOG is and has done, but because if we hadn’t cut SPOG loose, the labor council would have lost its soul.
Some argued that SPOG should have been allowed to stay as long as their leadership admitted that racism is a structural problem in law enforcement and agreed to submit to training.
That argument betrayed a complete misunderstanding—perhaps intentional—of the role of police. As we have seen from countless reform attempts over the decades, no amount of training is going to change the basic fact that Seattle’s police serve, and will continue to serve, the interests of the elites in our capitalistic society. What was true on the streets of Seattle twenty years ago is still true today.
Kicking SPOG out of our labor council doesn’t change that immutable fact, either. But in booting SPOG, delegates reestablished the principle within the labor council that unions exist to defend the interests of workers, and that the interests of unions are aligned with those of the community, not with the Seattle police and those whom the police protect.
About the Author
Jonathan Rosenblum works as a community organizer for Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Find him online at https://jonathanrosenblum.org/ or Twitter: @jonathan4212.