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Grappling with police unions in the fight for justice in policing

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Police at a demonstration. Image credit: Pxhere/Creative Commons license

In January 2021, a nine-year-old child was pepper sprayed in Rochester, New York, and the police union came out saying that "the child suffered no real harm." Almost every time there is a case of abuse or murder of visible minorities at the hands of police, police unions and associations have been seen opposing and watering down efforts to address racism and unfairness in policing. In June 2020, labour reporter Chelsea Nash wrote about the issue of police unions and racism for rabble.ca. As we work to fight against police violence and racism, and the Canadian Labour Congress joins the fight to defund the police, what will we in the labour movement do about carceral-sector unions and associations (covering police, correctional officers, security guards, etc.)? 

Policing and police unions, by the numbers

In its latest numbers (as of May 15, 2019), Statistics Canada reported 68,718 police officers on the streets in Canada, and thousands more in offices and working as support staff.  Almost all municipal and provincial police officers in Canada are part of the Canadian Police Association and its regional and local chapters, which operate very independently.  Until 2015, members of the RCMP were barred from forming a union. Now, approximately 20,000 RCMP officers and reservists below the rank of inspector are in the newly formed National Police Federation. Statistics Canada also reported that, as of May 15, 2019, eight per cent of police officers identified as visible minorities, according to Statistics Canada, even though the visible minority population represented 22 per cent of Canada's population in the 2016 census.

In First Nations communities, policing is either done through community tripartite agreements with the RCMP or self-administered police services, both of which are supported by funding from Public Safety Canada. The First Nations Chiefs of Police Association brings together police chiefs from self-administered police services to collaborate on ensuring good policing practice. For the most part, negotiations about policing resources seem to be conducted by First Nations leaders instead of police unions in self-administered systems. The Canadian Police Union and the National Police Federation also claim to represent First Nations members; however, the federal government still faces legal and human rights challenges from First Nations across Canada, arguing they receive lower-quality police services and facilities than non-Indigenous communities. In most provinces, the First Nations police forces are paid less than their provincially employed counterparts though some are represented by police and public-sector labour unions.

The role of unions and social justice

Police unions emerged out of loosely organized, community-based benevolent associations, fraternal organizations and social clubs which were formed in the 1800s. Police unionization emerged as a response to the decline in real income being reported across communities and the growing unionization of municipal employees after the First World War. By 1945, the Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto police associations had been certified as bargaining agents for local police forces. Since police and corrections officers first sought recognition as bargaining agents, they faced opposition both by government and business, and by social justice and workers' advocates. For the most part, police associations and unions are not affiliated with the Canadian Labour Congress.

How do we influence the actions of the police unions, and hence their members? How do we stop them from obstructing efforts to change police practice and create oversight? Is there any way they can become partners in the effort to defund police?

Currently, in Canada there are movements to demand the expulsion of police and correctional officers from unions affiliated with the larger labour federations, like PSAC, CUPE and others. However, this gesture would be largely symbolic because the lion's share of police unions are not part of Canada's labour federations, call themselves associations, and bargain outside the labour movement. If expelled, the correctional officers and police in unions affiliated with labour federations could easily form powerful independent bodies or join the majority non-affiliated police associations. Currently, OPSEU is facing a campaign by its member correctional officers to disaffiliate and create an independent corrections-only association. 

As Ryan Hayes points out in his piece for Brairpatch Magazine, "In the United States, along with the call to expel police unions from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), policy analysts have made the case for barring police associations from the right to collectively bargain. Others have called for limiting the scope of their bargaining to strictly wages and benefits." However, how will cutting the power of police officers to organize limit the power of the prison industrial complex to grow, influence policy and disproportionately incarcerate people of colour? The right to bargain collectively is a universal right, not delimited by ideology, and won't attempts to curtail it set an unfortunate precedent?

Sometimes when union representatives, writ large, defend indefensible members it may be counter to the larger course of justice. Many union staff make arguments like "we represent members as lawyers would, and to not do so would mean that it is a contravention of the duty of fair representation." A great explanation put together by PSAC-NCR shows that fair representation is more nuanced, in that it allows for unions to weigh the collective vs. individual interests, but it is also quite murky. However, it is clear that what needs changing is the framework which allows union representatives and lawyers to let workers walk.

We must work to defund the entire system and organize to demand accountability. Here are some ways we could organize, with labour and with other allies, to ensure real rather than symbolic change. 

1. The Canadian Labour Congress has issued a statement saying that unions should join the fight to defund the police. As union members who are anti-racism activists, we have spent so much of our time volunteering time outside of our paid jobs. We now have an opportunity to get our unions and locals to dedicate resources to the fight to defund police. As we negotiate to grow long-underfunded social service and public-service sectors and budgets again (sectors in which many Canadian union members work) we can demand that this growth be done in allyship with anti-racism advocates, strengthen communities and help in the fight against racism and violence in policing communities. There is an opportunity to make the goal of defunding the police part of the negotiations and work of the larger Canadian labour movement and we should use it.  

2. Make sure that the laws and regulations, jurisprudence and governing bodies which hold police officers accountable are strengthened. A review of policing regulations across Canada found that current regulations on use of force are not in keeping with international law. In June 2020, I did a cross-country survey of the sad state of independent police oversight across Canada. We must work to close the loopholes which allow police and other law enforcement personnel to do harm with impunity. The CCLA has an active campaign to demand more police accountability. 

3. The fact that police budgets keep increasing while other social services budgets keep being cut is putting unsustainable pressure on police. Police services and police unions have been vocal about workload issues and not being qualified to provide adequate support in mental health crises. They will likely not be on board for cutting police budgets. However, once budgets are cut and the hard work of restructuring the police begins, we must ensure that there are systems which hold police accountable. To date, effort after effort to ensure that police rely on trained personnel and improve how they respond to crises or to systemic failure have been partially implemented, if at all. We must keep pressure up to demand full implementation of recommendations.

Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image credit: Pxhere

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