Cops and Workers

Why Police Unions Are Not Labor Unions

Editor’s Note: The author(s) of this article have requested that the Phoenix publish this article under a pseudonym. As with all articles published by the Phoenix, the opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of either The Phoenix or DSA SF.

With the continued deindustrialization of advanced capitalist countries, some aspects of Marxist socialism require more care be applied if they are to adequately describe the world in which we live. A large section of workers are no longer in industrial sectors in the developed world, whereas much of Marx’s analysis centers the industrial proletariat specifically. The relations that constitute the class of “worker” have evolved dramatically in the last 150 years, and much work has been done to generalize Marxist analyses to a world in which much of the labor done no longer results in an easily recognizable commodity.

The direct disciplinary arm of the capitalist state, the police, has evolved greatly in this time as well. One thing especially remains unchanged in a Marxist view of the police, however: the class interest of cops is antithetical to that of workers, and so a “union” of police cannot be a true union.

What is the class interest of the police?

A greatly simplified view of the proletarian worker Marx envisioned is someone whose labor results in a commodity, which is then expropriated from the worker by a capitalist in return for wages. As Marx also focused his analysis on industrial labor, this factory-worker avatar of the working class is no longer representative of much of the labor done by people whose class interests are certainly still those of the proletariat. Service workers, public sector workers, and NGO workers all miss one or more of these checkboxes. Many public sector workers, for instance, do work that allows the state to reproduce itself, and thereby also to reproduce the property and class relations it protects. For example, the state as we know it couldn’t run without accountants.

What, then, differentiates an accountant from a cop? The accountant’s labor allows for the reproduction of the state itself; this is not a desirable outcome, but we could similarly argue that more conventional workers’ labor allows for the reproduction of the capitalist class without it being an indictment of those workers or their labor. In fact, capitalists’ (and the state’s) dependence upon workers for their own existence is the very source of workers’ power.

The result of the cop’s labor, though, is the reproduction of capitalist property relations specifically. This is laid out plainly when we consider the scenario in which the working class forcibly seizes the means of production from the capitalist class. The labor even of public sector workers is controlled by the capitalist class, insofar as the state is an institution controlled by the capitalist class (an idea which bears justification and which has been convincingly argued elsewhere.) Therefore, their class interest, too, is to join in this movement in order to liberate themselves from the control of capital.

Here cops, too, clearly demonstrate their class allegiance. The police are not granted individual autonomy to enforce only the laws they find just, and so the very exercise of their labor-power would be to crush this insurgent labor movement at the behest of the state. The ultimate manifestation of the working class improving the material conditions under which it exists is the taking of the means of production — for the cops, it is to ensure that this can never happen. There can be no clearer litmus test for the class alignment of an institution than, when push comes to shove, whose side are you on? For the police, both theoretical arguments and historical examples make the answer abundantly clear.

How do police unions fit in?

It follows from this assertion that police unions are not actually labor unions. A union is a tool by which workers consolidate their power to force capital to make concessions. Individual workers are nearly powerless; it requires a critical mass of workers to win concessions from capital. The key point here is that the relationship between unions and capital is necessarily antagonistic. Unions grant workers power they would not otherwise have, which poses a direct threat to the capitalist class. Conversely, a union of the police, whose labor directly reproduces the supremacy of the ruling class over the working class, is not antagonistic to the ruling class, but is rather a weapon of the ruling class. Solidarity among cops simply strengthens the domestic disciplinary arm of the state, and therefore, of capital. As workers, we owe nothing to an organization that directly perpetuates our oppression, whether it goes by the name of “union” or not.

We can see the violent manifestation of the police’s relation to the working class throughout modern history, especially American history. Whenever labor seems to be gaining real power, especially via strike actions, the police are the main tool by which capital regains its supremacy. The number of strikes that have been broken by the police lays to rest any real argument that a police union is a labor union. Labor unions have certainly not always been friendly to each other, but the relationship of police and labor unions is decidedly, structurally antagonistic. A union that exists to keep workers in check is no union, but is rather a consolidation of capitalist power.

San Francisco is a case in point. Despite being an early adopter of police diversity hiring as the result of a lawsuit by the black-led Officers for Justice in the 1960s, SFPD is as racist and brutal as the notorious Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago departments. The SF Police Officers Association (SFPOA) has played a large role in this. Founded as a vigilance squad, SFPD has a history of brutal strike-breaking, bombing of the Mayor’s house, mass beatings, and roundups of the LGBTQ community, all justified (and some argue later instigated) by the SFPOA after the “union” was founded in 1942. Since then the SFPOA has continued to cultivate a well-deserved reputation for bullying elected officials, protecting bad cops, and resisting reforms.

SFPOA leadership has exerted outsized control of the police department for decades. Despite a string of scandals (Fajitagate, racist texts) and a series of police executions of black and brown people in the Mission and Bayview Districts (Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, and others), SFPOA continued to back SFPD Chief Greg Suhr until the Frisco Five hunger strikers forced his resignation.

The SFPD, facing a growing chorus for reform, adopted a somewhat less brutal policy on the use of force in 2016, which was followed several months later by a lawsuit filed by the SFPOA. Despite the lawsuit being thrown out of court, the union has continued working tirelessly against even mild reforms. The SFPOA is currently fighting for officers to be provided with tasers, which, beyond the obvious concern of giving the police more weapons, will almost certainly be used largely upon San Francisco’s burgeoning populations of homeless and mentally ill folks.

Some of SFPOA’s recent behavior has been truly egregious, including one of its leaders trying to run down a public defender in an alley. However, we must recognize that these practices are not aberrations of an institution that has deviated from its intended role, nor are they the product of a few “bad cops.” They are an unmasking of the function that police unions truly serve: to garner as much power and impunity for their officers as they possibly can so as to better maintain the order of the ruling class.

What about individual cops?

There are individual police officers who truly believe that they are doing a good thing in catching “bad guys,” that their profession is honorable, or that the most vicious malfeasances of the police could be curbed by filling the ranks with “good cops.” Indeed, there have been instances of individual cops, having been ordered to break a strike, instead breaking ranks to side with strikers. While these sympathies and beliefs may be genuinely held, institutions are more than the individuals that comprise them; the police force is an institution of, by, and for the capitalist class, and as such is irredeemable.

However, individual people are not institutions, and are most certainly redeemable. The idea of the good cop is irresolvably contradictory insofar as the work of the police directly perpetuates the oppression of the working class, but we must allow for the possibility of changing hearts and minds through common struggle. We won’t redeem the police, but we may redeem individual cops who recognize the true class position of the police and abandon the institution.

In this question of individual cops we again see the insidiousness of the police union. Both labor unions and police unions function in part to foster solidarity, but solidarity of the police as an institution of the ruling class serves to foster the divisions that weaken the working class: white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, and bigotry of all stripes. Labor unions, if they are to be truly effective and transformative, must actively work to eliminate bigotry — police unions must foster it.

To opportunistically condone, even tacitly, the work of such an institution of state violence is to reify and empower those who would prevent us from realizing our vision for a just, equitable, and democratic society. Socialists must not only refuse to organize with such institutions, but must work to dismantle them.