Police unions are immensely powerful organizations that exercise outsized powers in U.S. cities. They often bargain for, and win, concessions that directly undermine the ability of the public to hold accountable those citizens who have been given the most power—the power over life and death. Police unions help immunize officers from repercussions for “misconduct,” which given their job descriptions often amounts to brutalizing and killing people.
For years as a part of the “labor left,” a Marxist but not quite a socialist, I had a blissfully simple worldview, that all workers deserve unions. In those years, I grappled a lot with the nature of police and whether they were “workers” part of the “working class” who therefore were entitled, like all workers, to unions. “All workers deserve a union,” is a clear, simple, and universal demand of the labor left. Having had some very negative, violent personal experiences with police, and of course aware of the history of police brutality in my city, I could understand and accept the argument that the police, because they are authorized to use force, were unique and not the same as other workers. This moral argument made perfect sense, but it always felt a little incomplete. At the same time, I also knew and organized with people who had police in their family, or whose families supported increased policing because their neighborhoods had experienced years of growing crime. It took years of talking to friends, organizers, and comrades with more experience, and study of the systems around us, to arrive at what seemed like a more complete and satisfying understanding of why we socialists deny that police are members of the working class or that police unions are part of the labor movement.
Being “working class” is a relation, not an identity
If this question comes up, it is important to remind people that being a “worker” means being part of the working class, and being part of the working class means being part of a relationship. It is not an identity in the sense of a social category. To be part of the working class means to exist in a relationship with the capitalist class—it is defined by being exploited by the people who own the means of production. Having to work for a paycheck to survive is a helpful shorthand, but it is just a shorthand. The full picture is that you have to work for a paycheck because the only way for you to survive is to sell your labor to the class of people who own the means of production, who own capital. The only way for them to make productive use of their capital, to “valorize” it, is to pay you less than the value you create. This is what defines the working class, and therefore workers. We don’t have to give up our beautifully simple view—that all workers deserve unions—quite yet.
The state is not a neutral arena, it has a class character
The next thing to understand is that “the state” is not a neutral arena in which citizens compete for power, going back and forth. It isn’t that we the people are all over here, in civil society, and we now and again agree to meet up over there, in the state, for a friendly competition of strength to see who will win the policies they want.
In the United States, the state grew up and took its shape out of the propertied class consolidating its power. The particular nature of property relations in the North American colonies (as opposed to European states) were not just those of the urban merchant capitalists, but the major landowners and slavers whose wealth and power came from their ability to extract labor from enslaved Africans as chattel property and land taken from indigenous nations. The early state had to protect the power of that class as against everyone else. As the U.S. state evolved, it retained that character in different forms, with an emphasis on personal rights and institutions that protected private property. In the U.S., the state is a bourgeois state whose purpose is, ultimately, to provide a backstop that, whatever concessions the ruling class makes to the working class, makes sure that the property relationships between the capitalist class and the working class cannot be eliminated.
The state is a set of institutions and practices that grew out of class struggle, as the means to manage it—not to “conciliate” the classes, but to guarantee some degree of stability by making permanent the domination of one class over the other. In other words, the state is not neutral between the classes, it is the instrument a dominant class develops and uses to repress the other. This ensures that the social relationship described above—the relation between the classes—is preserved, to the benefit of the ruling class. This is what we mean when we say that the state has a class character, that it is the “bourgeois state.”
The police are a unique arm of the capitalist state
Police are an essential arm of this bourgeois state. They are the expression of the state’s “monopoly on force.” State power takes many forms but in the end is expressed by its ability to use force. Police are “public employees,” they work for the state. But their relationship to the state is not adversarial in the way that the working class has an inherently adversarial relationship with the capitalist class. The state being a tool of the ruling class, the police are an extension of the ruling class—the relationship between police and the state, when it becomes contentious, is closer to an intra-class dispute (like between industries) than an inter-class dispute (like between workers and bosses).
This is distinct even from other public sector workers. The public sector in the U.S. has not always existed, obviously; public schools, services like publicly funded health care, social work, transit, sanitation, etc., are concessions wrung from the ruling class by the working class. This is why in times when the working class is relatively weaker, we see those same services rapidly cut or privatized. It is only the strength of the working class that preserves those parts of the public sector. Teachers, social workers, sanitation workers—their employer is the bourgeois state, and their conflicts with their employer is a function of the ruling class taking away from the working class.
The police, as the armed element of the capitalist state, do not exist as a concession wrung from the ruling class by the working class. They exist as a necessary part of the bourgeois state, particularly in the United States, where many of the earliest police forces developed out of slave patrols and riot control for obstreperous workers. The state rarely targets police forces for deep cuts when there are budget crunches—or if they do, they are often the last to feel the pinch, only when all other avenues are tried. As a matter of fact, there is a keen awareness that the more severe the austerity, the more necessary it will be to enforce the boundaries that segregate pain.
People of good faith may raise a lot of questions about this issue. Particularly if they know people who are police.
Aren’t a lot of police working people of color?
It is true that in plenty of big cities, police are recruited from “working class neighborhoods” and are Black and brown people, and that a career in the police department supports many thousands of families in those communities. Anybody who has spent any time organizing has come across people who end up being police officers because they saw or experienced crime in their youth, and wanted to be a part of bringing safety to their neighborhoods. But this fact should not excuse police conduct or justify the existence of police unions. To the contrary, it demonstrates how the institution of policing is capable of transforming people who may very well have good intentions. Socialists argue that so long as there is a bourgeois state, the institution of policing will reflect the will of the ruling class, conforming those who join that institution to that will. Policy should be designed with that understanding.
Why should teachers have unions but not police?
It is hard sometimes to draw lines, which is why the moral arguments against police unions can be hard to sustain. For example, the argument that because police can use force they should not be protected by a union is on a continuum with the argument that teachers, because they are adults responsible for discipline and education of children, should not be protected by unions.
This is why the categorical argument that understands why police are not part of the working class is so important. Because the public sector exists and thrives when the working class is strong enough to create and protect it, teachers, social workers, transit workers, etc., are still in an adversarial relationship with the capitalist class. The police are never in that adversarial relationship.
Wouldn’t the situation be worse if there was no union?
One of the most compelling arguments for police unions is that without them, police forces would be even more prone to cronyism, patronage and abuse—without the protection of union contracts, police forces would become the personal fiefdoms of politicians, who could stock them with loyal henchmen, use them as political pawns, and otherwise subject a potentially lethal armed force to the whims of locally powerful politicians.
This was an argument that, as someone who considered themselves on the labor-left, was persuasive to me, because it has a similar logic to arguments that are used to defend public-sector unions in general. One of the most critical functions of public-sector unions is to protect those workforces from becoming mere patronage dumps for powerful politicians, which degrades public services and undermines democracy.
This is probably the most persuasive argument in favor of police unions. However, the implication is that so long as state power is held by an exploitative class, the public is stuck between two bad options. With strong unions, police can beggar cities, exercise immense power in urban politics, protect and immunize their members from accountability. Without them, corrupt bourgeois politicians can build personally loyal patronage armies inside what is essentially a paramilitary force. In neither case is the public more safe.
Drawing down police departments and funding alternative public safety programs, and building working class organizations to take state power—two approaches that complement each other—are the only sure ways to end the police violence that has wracked the working class and in particular the Black and brown segments of the working class, for generations.