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This article is from the September/October 2011 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Cops for Labor?

Police support for protesters in Wisconsin was an exception to the historical rule.

By Kristian Williams

In February of this year, Madison, Wisc., became the front line of the American class war.

Governor Scott Walker announced a bill to strip public employees of most of their union rights. Thousands of workers occupied the Capitol building in response. Tens of thousands participated in protests outside.

The civilly disobedient unions found themselves with a surprising ally—the police.

Off-duty cops joined the protests, some wearing “Cops for Labor” and “Deputies for Democracy” t-shirts. When the governor threatened to close the Capitol and forcibly end the sit-in, cops showed up with sleeping bags and stayed the night.

Of course it couldn’t last.

Within a few days the police did clear the protestors out of the Capitol—first by enforcing rules prohibiting blankets and chairs, then by preventing new protestors from joining the action, and finally, by escorting out the remaining stalwarts. A few weeks later, the cops were less gentle, ejecting protestors who tried to re-occupy the Capitol and prevent the legislature’s vote. Despite the much-lauded peacefulness of the protests, the cops made 59 arrests at the Madison rallies, and cleared away barricades the protestors had erected around the Capitol building.

And that is exactly what we should have expected.

In the midst of the sit-in, Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association executive board president Tracy Fuller confessed that his members would “absolutely” use force if so ordered. Fuller told reporter Stephen C. Webster that the notion of resisting orders “hasn’t even come up.” He said: “I’m not able to even fathom that any of those police officers would not carry out whatever orders were given.” Fuller went on: “I guess that’s the one ironic thing about this. ... I could be down there confronting my wife with the protest sign that I made. ... That’s my job.”

Fuller is not the first officer to experience this ambivalence. The police, whose job consists in large part of controlling the working class and protecting the interests of the rich, are themselves nevertheless often of working-class extraction and endure many of the frustrations of wage labor. As individuals, their sympathy for striking workers might be expected, but as a body—as the police—their role in repressing the labor movement has been a defining element of the institution’s development.

Backing Up Labor

In times of open class conflict the cops have not generally been on the side of the strikers. That was true in Chicago in 1886, and in Lawrence in 1912, in San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, Detroit in 1995, Charleston in 2000—and in dozens of other massacres and thousands of picket-line skirmishes. Nevertheless, there have been exceptions—historic moments when the police sided with the workers.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, local cops repeatedly proved unreliable in the face of labor unrest—placing personal or class loyalty above the demands of the job. That was especially true in small towns where the cops had social and familial ties with the strikers. For example, in June 1874, the mayor and sheriff of Braidwood, Ill., refused to deputize Pinkerton guards. Instead they deputized striking miners, disarmed the Pinkertons, and arrested strikebreakers.

The most famous case, thanks to the 1987 John Sayles movie Matewan, is that of Matewan, W. Va., where Police Chief Sid Hatfield was himself a former miner. During the 1920 strike, Hatfield enforced the law in ways that favored the workers, and ultimately engaged in a shoot-out with Baldwin-Felts Agency goons working for the mine owners. He was acquitted of murder charges, but later assassinated by detective company gunmen.

Even in cities, where the police were more removed from the larger community, cops did sometimes refuse to move against strikers.

During a 1902 streetcar strike, the mayor of the Providence suburb Pawtucket openly sided with the striking workers, and the police did almost nothing to impede their activities. That same year, in New Orleans, the police didn’t just stand aside, but actually attacked the scabs, arresting them on weapons charges and (as one newspaper put it) “slamming them about unmercifully.”

Police in Richmond, Va., faced criticism for their sympathetic handling of a 1903 streetcar strike, and the sheriff of nearby Henrico was even tried for neglect of duty. According to the Virginia Passenger and Power Company (which made the complaint), Sheriff Simon Solomon provided no protection for the streetcars, refused the militia’s assistance, and arrested scabs “who had bravely fought in defense of their lives” against striking workers. He was acquitted.

In 1907, after scabs shot into a crowd of strikers, the San Francisco chief of police declared “if any strikebreakers start shooting ... they will be shot in return by the police.” Thirteen scabs were later arrested for their part in the incident.

In 1913, 29 Indianapolis cops refused to ride streetcars during a strike; citing Mayor Samuel Shank’s public support of the strike, they managed to avoid discipline. During the 1919 Steel Strike, Cleveland Mayor Harry Davis ordered police to treat scabs as suspicious persons. Likewise, during the 1934 Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company strike, Mayor Daniel Hoan ordered the arrest of 150 strikebreakers.

Historian James Richardson discerns a pattern in the way the cops handled strikes: “the police tended to follow the lines of power. ... If the authorities favored the workers or were at least neutral, the police remained neutral. If on the other hand, political leaders and newspapers viewed the strikers as un-American radicals or a threat to the town’s prosperity ... then the police acted as agents of employers in their strikebreaking activities.”

Breaking Ranks

However, there have also been times when the police took their own initiative in supporting strikers, disobeying orders and even facing discipline.

In 1877, police in Paterson, N.J., refused to participate in anti-strike activities. In Buffalo, sympathetic cops were suspended during the 1892 switchman’s strike. Chicago police declined to interfere with the destruction of property during the Pullman Strike of 1894, and even contributed to the worker’s relief committee; an entire unit was suspended in response. In Cleveland, 1896, cops were suspended and fined when they disregarded orders to move against striking workers.

In Columbus, 1910, 32 patrolmen and 23 special officers—about a quarter of the police force—were suspended when they refused orders to protect scabs. In 1916, five NYPD patrolmen were fired for refusing to guard trains during a transit strike. And in 1929, five New Orleans cops resigned rather than help break a streetcar strike there.

In 1974, Baltimore police, in violation of state law, went on strike in solidarity with the city’s AFSCME workers. Looting broke out, the governor sent in the State Police, and the strike was defeated. The police union was fined $25,000 and its president fined another $10,000.

More recently, during the 1997 UPS strike, Terry Martin, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union, issued a memo urging “zero tolerance” for scab trucks. He advised officers to “do everything possible to get that UPS ‘scab’ truck off the road.”

In Portland, where I live, I once saw a police sergeant refuse to clear a crowd of supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) out of the lobby of a hotel in the midst of a labor dispute. He told the owner, “We enforce the criminal law, not labor law.” In that case, the owner went over his head and an hour later the riot squad showed up, led by a lieutenant. Discipline and Coercion Of course, those cases are notable precisely because they are exceptions. More typically police have responded to strikes with surveillance, harassment, arrests, and violence.

In his book Policing a Class Society, Sidney Harring cites several mechanisms that serve to maintain the obedience of the police during strikes. These include racism and ethnic divisions, disdain for unskilled or low-wage workers, organizational norms and discipline, the law-and-order ideology, the criminalization of strike activity, and incentives such as overtime pay or bonuses. Most of these work by using the personal biases and institutional culture of the police to undercut their sympathy for disobedient workers—especially when those workers are immigrants or people of color. Furthermore, those officers who participate in strike duty may receive added financial rewards, while those who avoid strike duty may lose the respect of their peers or face punishment. This combination of coercion, compensation, and ideological justification have mostly worked to keep the cops following their orders and breaking strikes.

But the minority of cases—those in which these controls didn’t hold—deeply worried the authorities. Individual refusals or small mutinies could be handled by the usual methods of discipline. But where the state’s coercive apparatus showed signs of systemic failure, the authorities have been quick to make new arrangements.

The move away from the militia system is a case in point. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, while some militia units simply massacred strikers, others lent various levels of support to the workers’ cause. In several Pennsylvania towns—Harrisburg, Morristown, and Altoona—the militia surrendered to the union. Militiamen openly fraternized with striking workers in Newark, Ohio, and Hornellsville, N.Y. In Lebanon, Pa., the militia mutinied. And in Reading, one militia company intervened against another to protect the strikers: “If you fire at the mob, we’ll fire at you.”

It was the experience of this strike that led to the re-organization of the traditional militia system into the modern, more militarized National Guard—arguably, a change of Constitutional magnitude.

Similarly, it was the unreliability of small-town cops in cracking down on labor that led private companies in Pennsylvania to form the Coal and Iron Police in 1865. This was a private force, controlled by the railroads and mining companies, but deputized by the state in exchange for a fee of one dollar per officer. In 1905, following the Great Anthracite Strike, this private army was first supplemented and eventually replaced by the first modern state police force, the Pennsylvania State Constabulary.

The State Constabulary was designed as a strikebreaking force and organized along military lines. The men were recruited from throughout the state to diminish local loyalties; they were housed in barracks to prevent the formation of community bonds. And they were rigorously trained, strictly disciplined, and drilled in military tactics. The Pennsylvania State Federation of Labor called them “Cossacks.” 

Institutionalized Conflict and Vertical Solidarity

We’ve seen far fewer instances of police/labor alliances since the 1930s. Ironically, however, this decline in solidarity has less to do with militarized repression than with the institutionalization of the labor movement, on the one hand, and the creation of police unions on the other.

On the first point, it’s important to remember that before the National Labor Relations Act, unions were widely treated as criminal conspiracies, strikes as a form of extortion. Class war under such circumstances was something more than a metaphor.

When unions were legalized, the focus of struggle moved off the streets and into the courts—to the benefit of the bosses, in the long run. As Howard Zinn observed, “Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable—more stabilizing for the system than the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank-and-file.” By 1946 GM’s main demand in contract talks was “union responsibility for uninterrupted production.”

In the new period of institutionalized unionism there was less actual conflict, so the cops were less frequently presented with the question “Which side are you on?”

Meanwhile, in the 1940s, police started to form their own unions. City leaders first responded by firing union supporters, but soon offered a path of least resistance that led away from the main body of the labor movement and toward police-only organizations. For example, in 1942, police commanders approved the creation of the Detroit Police Officers Association in order to undercut a union drive sponsored by the American Federation of Labor. Likewise, in New York, facing union-friendly court rulings and a Teamsters organizing campaign, administrators opted to negotiate with the existing (and more pliable) Patrolman’s Benevolent Association.

This strategy diminished the possibility of solidarity between the cops and other public employees, and allowed local governments to treat police always as a special case. Cops are generally barred from striking, but they receive more generous pay, health, and retirement benefits. Furthermore, unions use the bargaining process to insulate the police from meaningful oversight and accountability. Contract negotiations become, as sociologist Margaret Levi puts it, an exercise in “collusive bargaining”—taking the outward appearance of conflict, while actually operating in terms of a union/management consensus.

The result is a kind of vertical solidarity. The police unions and police management negotiate a unifying agenda; the unions then function both internally, as a mechanism for preserving the loyalty of the low-level officers and externally, as the political arm of the police institution overall. The police union becomes, at once, the lobbying body, the media representatives, the fundraising mechanism, the electoral machine, and—when they participate in demonstrations—the shock troops of the law-and-order agenda.

Moreover, the police union can earn its keep by defending the indefensible—allowing commanders and civil authorities to distance themselves from controversies involving racial profiling or the use of force. Elected officials need only point to the union contract and insist that it is beyond their power to discipline the officers involved.

The power of the police union lies largely in its ability to insulate individual officers, and thus the department as a whole, from political pressure, civilian oversight, and public accountability. One consequence, as sociologist Rodney Stark noted 40 years ago, was “the emergence of the police as a self-conscious, organized, and militant political constituency, bidding for far-reaching political power in their own right.”

In broad terms, the police agenda has been right-wing—suspicious of social change, intolerant of disorder, hostile to individual or civil rights, punitive in its response to crime, and quick to justify the use of force. But as the recent events in Wisconsin show, when their interests are under attack, the police may be pushed, at least for a while, into alliance with the left.

Limits and Threats

The instances in which the police align with labor are remarkable precisely because they are exceptions. And as exceptions, they are short-lived, disconnected, isolated occurrences. Yet they point to a possible limit to the willingness of police officers, individually or as a group, to protect the interests of capitalists by repressing the legitimate demands of labor.

The interesting thing about Wisconsin is not that the police eventually fell back into their usual role, but that they briefly threatened to depart from it. Ultimately, however, this fact may say less about the cops or their unions than about the severity of the change that Walker and the Republicans are seeking to impose.

The threat to unions today is so severe that it has disrupted the normal institutional framework that manages and contains class conflict. The main purpose of that framework is to minimize social and economic disruption, and it has always protected the interests of the bosses better than those of the workers.

Governor Walker may believe that by weakening the unions he can destroy the labor movement. What he risks, however, is freeing the movement from its institutional confines. The shifting position of the police is just one symptom of this destabilizing effect. It is because the new law limits the legal rights of unions that the ensuing crisis has opened space for increased militancy.

What cannot be negotiated under the law will inevitably be settled by other means.

KRISTIAN WILLIAMS is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (South End Press, 2007), and a member of the National Writers Union (UAW Local 1981).

SELECTED SOURCES: Jeremy Brecher, Strike!, Boston: South End Press, 1972; Robert M. Fogelson, Big-City Police, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977; Sidney L. Harring, Policing A Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983; Bruce C. Johnson, “Taking Care of Labor: The Police in American Life,” Theory and Society, Spring 1976; Eugene L. Leach, “The Literature of Riot Duty: Managing Class Conflict in the Streets, 1877-1927,” Radical History Review, Spring 1993; Margaret Levi, Bureaucratic Insurgency: The Case of Police Unions, Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1977; Katherine Mayo, Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State Police, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917; Stephen H. Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002; Robert Reiner, The Blue-Coated Worker: A Sociological Study of Police Unionism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978; Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003; Rodney Stark, Police Riots: Collective Violence and Law Enforcement, Belmont, California: Focus Books, 1972; Samuel Yellen, American Labor Struggles, 1877-1934, New York: Pathfinder, 1936.

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