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When do Unions Impede Justice?

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


downloadAcross many professional realms, unions provide critical protections for vulnerable citizens. Those of us aligned with the political left decry most efforts to undermine the power of collective bargaining. The police, however, represent a notable exception. Writing earlier this month for the New Republic, Steven Cohen describes the sometimes disastrous effect of police union protections. He points to Chicago as an especially egregious example of union politics running counter to justice for the city’s residents:

Within the pervasive system of corruption, complicity, and negligence that led to [Chicago police shooting victim] Laquan McDonald’s death and then facilitated its cover-up, Chicago’s police officers union has emerged not just as a political impediment to reform, but also as a major institutional foundation underpinning racial injustice.

Chicago is not alone in this regard. Cohen describes the efforts of an organization called Campaign Zero, which collects and publishes data on police union contracts in cities nationwide. The results of their research are damning:

Of the 14 other major U.S. cities featured on a new infographic released Wednesday as part of Campaign Zero’s Police Union Contract Project, seven have collective bargaining agreements with provisions [similar to Chicago’s] delaying the interrogation of officers being investigated for use of force and erasing the resulting documentation of abuse. Thirteen have agreements that accomplish one or the other. In Austin, Houston, Louisville, and San Antonio, police union contracts go so far as to require 48-hour notice before an interview with an officer can be conducted, a precaution predicated on the utterly baseless claim that the buffer period helps preserve accurate memory. (Based on the available evidence, it’s more likely that the opposite is the case.) Before Cleveland’s recent settlement with the Justice Department, the personnel files of its police were wiped clean every two years.

Unions represent the collective power of laborers in negotiations with the entities that both need and exploit their labor. Public employees need union protection in their negotiations with the government; without it, their bargaining power would be minimal. But when police unions seek (successfully!) to shield their members from accountability for their actions, the result is anything but just. Reform is necessary. Cohen notes that while it isn’t imminent, there is room for hope:

Digging out the barriers police unions have erected to obstruct accountability is going to be a difficult battle. That it’s being fought at all is its own sort of progress.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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1 Comment to “When do Unions Impede Justice?”

  1. William Eaton says:

    As you, Drew, begin, “unions provide critical protections for vulnerable citizens.” And thus, yes, too, I hardly wish to ignore the problems posed by how some or many police unions (to include in New York where I live) perceive their role and go about it. And this touches, too, on problems posed by labor unions more generally. BUT (!) I still take the larger point to be that unions provide critical protections for vulnerable citizens.

    The American media, in an alliance with business forces and their politicians, has been going after labor unions for decades upon decades. The results of this class warfare have been disastrous for American workers (ourselves included) and for the whole culture.

    For example, Paul Krugman’s recent New York Review of Books piece on “Challenging the Oligarchy” traces current levels of inequality (and economic injustice) to the failure of the federal government “to pursue antitrust regulation vigorously” and “the drastic decline in [labor] unions.” His pieces includes this: “[T]he decline in unions seems to have major impacts beyond the direct effect on members’ wages: researchers at the International Monetary Fund have found a close association between falling unionization and a rising share of income going to the top one percent, suggesting that a strong union movement helps limit the forces causing high concentration of income at the top.”

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