There Are Unions…And Then There Are Unions…

Yesterday, I explained how my opinion of labor unions had, shall we say, “matured” over the years.  Like many others, I came to see what happens when power becomes wildly disproportionate–when the parties to “bargaining” are so unequal that actual bargaining is impossible.

My belated support for unions recognizes the importance of genuine collective bargaining.

That support doesn’t extend to today’s iteration of police unions, which tend to be powerful protectors of the worst elements of law enforcement.

Public-sector unions are all in a somewhat different situation than those in the private sector. The ability to interrupt a public service gives them additional clout, and they have consequently fared somewhat better than their private-sector counterparts. To the best of my knowledge, most–but certainly not all– have behaved responsibly.

Then there are police unions, which definitely have not. As an article last year in the New York Times put it,

Over the past five years, as demands for reform have mounted in the aftermath of police violence in cities like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and now Minneapolis, police unions have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to change. The greater the political pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions often are in resisting it — with few city officials, including liberal leaders, able to overcome their opposition.

They aggressively protect the rights of members accused of misconduct, often in arbitration hearings that they have battled to keep behind closed doors. And they have also been remarkably effective at fending off broader change, using their political clout and influence to derail efforts to increase accountability.

That political clout is significant. Candidates for local offices seek to benefit not just from police union endorsements but from contributions: according to the Times, a single New York City police union had donated over $1 million to state and local races between 2014-2020.

The knee-jerk resistance to reform and the “aggressive” protection of their members are troubling, but understandable, “tribal” behaviors. Less understandable–actually, in my view, incomprehensible–is the current anti-vaccine stance being taken by several police unions.

Police departments around the U.S. that are requiring officers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are running up against pockets of resistance that some fear could leave law enforcement shorthanded and undermine public safety.

Police unions and officers are pushing back by filing lawsuits to block the mandates. In Chicago, the head of the police union called on members to defy the city’s Friday deadline for reporting their COVID-19 vaccination status.

It’s not just Chicago. The Sheriff of Los Angeles County has said he won’t force his 18,000 employees to be vaccinated despite a county mandate. Hundreds of police officers in San Diego say they would consider quitting instead of complying with a vaccination mandate.

Resistance is bubbling up even though first responders have been hit hard by COVID-19. More than 460 law enforcement officers have died from the virus, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks deaths in the line of duty.

On the news a few mornings ago, the head of the Chicago union pontificated that being vaccinated was a “personal choice” that government had no right to over-rule. That is especially ironic coming from someone who has been deputized by the government to enforce rules against the “personal choices” of, say, marijuana smokers, seat-belt resisters and gamblers.

It’s bad enough that ordinary Americans don’t understand the difference between personal liberty and their obligations to their fellow-citizens. (As a recent Facebook meme parodied that declaration, if I’m on a ship and I saw through the floor of my cabin to the water below, it’s my personal decision…). But these are people sworn to protect  and serve their communities–people who presumably became police officers in order to keep others safe. A “choice” to remain unvaccinated doesn’t simply expose the individual officer to a potentially deadly disease; it endangers anyone in the public with whom that officer interacts.

The research is unequivocal: police unions have a negative effect on innovation, accountability, and police — community relations. “Unionized officers draw more excessive-force complaints and are more likely to kill civilians, particularly nonwhite ones.”

The reason I changed my mind about unionization in general was my recognition that disproportionate power exercised by either unions or management leads to negative outcomes. In the private sector, sapping the ability of workers to bargain effectively has driven the widening gap between the rich and the rest.

In the public sector, the ability of police unions to shield bad cops from accountability–to allow them to defy the very rules they are supposed to uphold– endangers us all.


  1. And when you add the element of white supremacy to the mix, you can understand why BLM was demanding that police unions be defunded. Obama came to their rescue. The corruption runs deep, especially when there is power involved.

    My post yesterday must have gone to the ether. The private sector unions have issues with corruption as well. The WWSW points out frequently that the top leadership has frequently made decisions that benefited the oligarchs over the workers.

    Once again, all our institutions are owned and/or controlled by the oligarchy. Any top-down organization has already been secured. The solution is the democratization of these institutions from the ground up. Worker-based coalitions.

    The public sector unions like police unions require Democratic Socialists funded by the people and lots of them. That’s basically the solution to our existing Fascist institutions that have monopolized power over the past 40-50 years. Look how the Republicans in Texas are acting with power. They are solidifying their control.

  2. It surely seems to me that a very basic rule has been forgotten or ignored by way too many people in our current society. It’s that old rule we all have heard of at some time in our lives, that rule that was espoused by a leader, long before any of us were born. A rule that certainly has withheld the test of time, until now. Because now we have way too many self centered egotistical individuals In our lives.
    So let’s try this other way once again.
    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There it is a pretty simple mantra to live by.

  3. This is the perfect time to flex a little administrative muscle and fire those who refuse to comply. You may have to scramble for a while, but use the opportunity to hire people trained in psychology and/or social work to intervene in the cases that might now get someone shot. Re-organize!

  4. @ Roberta … Amen. There is a ‘Golden Rule’ that resonates in every major religion around the world and not one standing alone can make exclusive claim. Thank you for focusing spotlight on a universal truth.

  5. Professor, I recall that sometime last year you were critical of the term “defund the police” which I asserted was an effective slogan from a marketing perspective because the term got everyone’s attention and focused on the reality that a small but growing and very vocal minority of Americans literally wanted cities to CUT the portion of their budgeted devoted to policing. All manner of contortions were made by liberals to explain away that reality by saying what it really meant was that MORE of policing should be handled by mental health professionals, etc. etc. etc.

    But the fact is that hearing those three words uttered was an existential moment for police unions and not just police chiefs and mayors and CHANGED THE BALANCE OF POWER between labor and management, in this case, the people. Since the city of Santa Cruz CA has done just what the slogan implied. It has defunded its police to free up the financial resources to fund squads of well-equipped emergency mental health professionals, modeled after a similar program built in deeply blue Eugene OR. What’s even more interesting is that both have been well-received and deemed long overdue by their local police chiefs and presumably with the support of police unions.

    Again, it shows that social change rarely if ever originates in the mushy middle of the American right-left political spectrum, however, centrists are often literally at the center of getting things implemented. Even some fairly good ideas originate from the right, such as carbon credit markets, and Obamacare (good with respect to expanding health care to more ppl – but not the ideal).

  6. The “golden rule” pertains to how much gold a capitalistic corporation can accumulate no matter who or what it exploits for profits.

    Remember when Lee Iacocca brought the UAW leadership to the board of directors and Chrysler when he was trying to save the company from its own greed? Yeah. It worked. No strikes. Cooperation between labor and management. Profits soared. Employees got increased pay and benefits. The corporation was saved from the ash heap or, worse, being acquired by a foreign company.

    What a concept!

  7. Could be a blessing in disguise. I’ll bet there’s a significant overlap between vehemently vaccine resistant cops and the hard-right looney cops we’d like to get rid of anyway. Seems like a tailor made excuse to drop the dead weight that’s dragging down all attempts to fix the enforcement system.

  8. “On the news a few mornings ago, the head of the Chicago union pontificated that being vaccinated was a “personal choice” that government had no right to over-rule. That is especially ironic coming from someone who has been deputized by the government to enforce rules against the “personal choices” of, say, marijuana smokers, seat-belt resisters and gamblers”.

    How many of these same officers are of the anti-abortion persuasion to limit a woman’s “personal choice” as to what she can and can’t do with her own body? Asking for a friend.

  9. The NYPD has basically declared itself above the law. They are bullies with guns and a badge. I am now more frightened of the police than I am random criminals.

  10. Dick and Peggy – I couldn’t agree more. We have a huge part of OUR police who believe they are above the law that they are hired to enforce. They have far too much power and believe they can violate peoples civil rights with impunity. I believe they have given us an opportunity to dump their sorry asses. First let’s replace those who put their interests above the people they are supposed to serve and then replace them with good cops.

    BTW – Don’t be surprised if huge percentages of those who said they would quit rather than get vaccinated decide that maybe they over reacted and decide to get vaccinated after all. Few of them have the guts to give up their overpaid salaries and benefits. For now this is just a power move to show the unions are the bosses of those who are elected to oversee them. Most will not quit because they know few will pay them so much and wonder what marketable skills do they have? There is not much of a market for undereducated bullies (maybe Trump will hire them!)

  11. Yesterday, someone on the Bulwark podcast the guests mentioned that while Republicans have absolute support of anything police unions want, Democrats are the same way when it comes to teachers’ unions. He suggested the politically parties should mutually agree to kick their patron union to the curb. Yes, can we please do this?

  12. All organizations that have power (which is pretty much all of them because that’s generally their purpose) need effective regulation to make sure that their power is in the public interest and is satisfactory for all stakeholders.

  13. If police unions were doing their job well, they would start making it easier for police officers to “come out” when they are suffering with PTSD or other mental health and substance use issues. They would insist that police officers committing domestic violence be taken off the force and would also take their guns. They would ensure that each officer felt comfortable with asking for help. How many officers have failed to recognize when they need “back up”? Oh but alpha males cannot do such a thing. They act like a wolf pack. The howls have been replaced with sirens. And what is even sadder is that the sociopathic beta males make the rest of the police officers look really bad. Meantime the union keeps supporting these bad actors which further damages the reputation of the police force. They are shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak.

    Police need to have a more interdisciplinary team if they want to really invest in community policing. It should include nurses, social workers, substance use counselors, and forensic crisis workers who are skilled at deescalating people. After all a police officer cannot be all things to all people. We don’t have these multidisciplinary teams because of the war on drugs and the continued stigma against addicts and people with severe mental health disorders. The health insurance companies further exacerbate the problem because they refuse to cover the higher levels of care and lengths of stay that people with these disorders truly need.

    I don’t know how many police officers are Trump supporters though I suspect the majority are. It is appalling to me that they would support someone who believes he is above the law. But then, many police officers come to believe they are above the law. They think they can drive at any speed, tail gate people, confiscate drugs for their own use etc.

    I don’t believe anyone should be allowed to enroll in a police academy until he/she/they have taken an MMPI II that shows that they are not paranoid or sociopathic or prone to substance abuse.

    I often wonder how our failure to create effective regulations for gun ownership further contributes to making police officers “trigger happy”. Some of them are constantly on edge as a result. And I wonder if there are times when they are out gunned, so to speak.

    I see this as a multifactorial problem,not just a problem created by police unions. The unions are taking a reactive stance to a nation that has a severe lack of resources for treatment of people with mental health and addictions, to a nation that has a severe lack of effective regulations for gun ownership. And then, of course, there is the way we turn boys into men by denying them the right to cry, feel sad, and/or scared.

    In order for us to effectively reform policing in America, all of these factors must be addressed. Failure to do so is simply putting a bandaid on a gaping wound.

  14. Let me defend unions
    The police union isn’t one.
    It is a guild blended with a cult (“we are defenders of justice, so we are righteous and never wrong”).
    I has nothing to do with working conditions and wages, and much to do with protecting everything they do from any scrutiny, let alone criticism.

    Nice try Paul, but I don’t remember a unionized teacher killing an unarmed man and going free with the unanimous defense of the teacher’s union.

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