A group of rank-and-file workers in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) from around the United States formed Cop Free AFSCME, inspired by the historic mass action after the murder of George Floyd. That struggle brought out conversations around the role of police in our society and whose side they’re on, leading us to form an independent campaign aimed at building the ranks of workers inside and outside of AFSCME who see the contradiction of police in the labor movement.
We, alongside other unionists, see the necessity to rid the labor movement of police and correctional officers in order to strengthen the working class, the motor of society. We see the intrinsic link between anti-worker actions taken by the bosses and the police who enforce these actions and beat us back when we resist.
Through agitation and education, mobilization and dedication, we aim to transform the union into an antiracist organization by and for the working class. Our worker organizations have been disarmed by bureaucratic leadership, turned into appendages of the Democratic Party, and made into business organizations—and pro-cop tendencies reflect that. Therefore, as we state on our website;
This movement cannot focus on changing the minds of AFSCME’s leadership. If that were our strategy, we would be doomed to fail. Union leaders like AFSCME’s Lee Saunders will always have more to gain by preserving the status quo than by supporting radical actions that increase solidarity for the entire working class.
Instead, we must build power from the roots, and focus on organizing our fellow rank-and-file, especially those within marginalized communities who are the most acutely affected by police terror, and who would have the most to gain from police disaffiliation. We can do this by building consciousness among each other about the ways that police and the prison industrial complex destroy communities and misuse union power, and how our union shields them.
With this strategy in mind, at AFSCME’s international convention, we submitted a resolution to rid AFSCME of police and correctional officers. The resolution was met with an organized pushback by union leadership in an attempt to crush our momentum, but they only fueled the fire, and revealed their true colors in the process. Below is our statement that we wrote shortly after the convention, describing what took place and the fight ahead.
We Demand a Cop-Free AFSCME
By rank-and-file workers in support of a Cop-Free AFSCME
On July 13, 2022, at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ (AFSCME) International Convention in Philadelphia, we introduced and defended a resolution to immediately expel law enforcement from AFSCME. And though this measure was sadly defeated, we don’t consider this the end of the fight, or even necessarily a setback. We’re proud that, to our knowledge, this was the first time ever that this kind of resolution had received a floor vote by AFSCME delegates from all across the country. As rank-and-file members who believe in racial and economic justice, we know that cops have no place in the labor movement, and we’ll never quit until we get law enforcement out of AFSCME and the AFL-CIO. For our union to make good on its promises to fight systemic racism and advance racial justice, we must do more than talk. We must act. We demand a Cop-Free AFSCME.
The debate around policing has weighed heavily in the public consciousness since May 2020, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nine and a half minutes as he pleaded for air. Floyd’s murder reignited a righteous movement demanding police accountability, with bold proposals such as defunding and abolishing the police while reinvesting in our communities.
AFSCME, however, has responded to this historic moment and these demands with tepid endorsements for “police reform”—ultimately doubling down on support of police within its ranks. At the 2020 Convention, AFSCME leadership refused to consider any resolutions supporting commonsense checks on police power like ending no-knock warrants. Simultaneously, a group of rank-and-file members put forth a resolution calling for the redistribution of police funding and disaffiliation from police union locals; AFSCME leadership blocked this resolution and instead co-opted these demands, presenting their own watered-down, pro-cop alternative.
In May 2021, a year after George Floyd was murdered, AFSCME participated in “National Police Week” by creating a tribute video from International President Lee Saunders highlighting AFSCME’s commitment to cop unions and sending an e-blast to members across the country asking them to send a “thank you” message to cops. AFSCME’s messaging following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd emphasized its support for policing and its 90,000 members who work in law enforcement. Chauvin’s prosecution and conviction were made possible by the largest protest movement in US history, composed of ordinary people like our rank-and-file members. But rather than harnessing this moment to stand with its members, AFSCME has stonewalled, ignored, and co-opted these demands. AFSCME leadership has made a mockery of the union’s stated commitments toward racial justice.
During the 2022 convention, this trend only worsened. AFSCME leadership doubled down on their support of police and corrections—championing them in keynote addresses—and endorsed another toothless resolution on racial equity that fails to address the main ways our union contributes to white supremacy, along with a resolution that calls for the redistribution of
pandemic funds like the American Rescue Plan into the prison system.
AFSCME leadership also continued to promote disproven reform tactics like better training and increased funding. Conversely, AFSCME recommended a “No” vote on our resolution, ”For a Cop-Free AFSCME,” and only let one supporter speak in favor of the resolution. It also recommended the convention not even consider a resolution that called for the resignation of Uvalde police officers and government officials for their systemic failure to respond to the mass shooting of children at Robb Elementary.
All of this is to say that, in the over two years since George Floyd was murdered, AFSCME has still not made any fundamental changes in its relationship with law enforcement.
As rank-and-file AFSCME members, we have had enough. Cop locals simply do not belong in AFSCME. At its root, policing is both anti-worker and anti-Black: modern policing in the US has its origins in enforcing slavery and breaking up labor organizations. Since then, police have regularly engaged in union-busting, deportations, evictions, and have violently suppressed the fights for civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and the right to an abortion. These actions by the police divide and weaken the working class. Police unions will continue to uphold these systems of oppression as long as they hold power. We have no interest in AFSCME’s tired half-measures and empty gestures toward fighting for racial justice. For the legitimacy of AFSCME, and of public-sector unions more generally, labor must take a stand and expel police.
Police have proven time and again that their interests are directly opposed to those of the working class and the movement for racial justice. Yet for too long, AFSCME has rolled out the red carpet to police officers and carceral staff. In 1968, our union led the drive to win bargaining rights for the sanitation workers of Memphis—an all-Black workforce who were savagely attacked by the all-white city cops. But at the same time, AFSCME was actively organizing cops in other cities. And in one high-profile Maryland case from 2008, AFSCME wielded its power to insulate Roxbury Correctional Institute officers from accountability after they had engaged in a high-profile case of brutality and beatings.
At the 2022 convention, one AFSCME cop and another member of the unelected Resolutions Committee, compared our campaign to racial discrimination, a comparison that is not only insulting, but also racist. People of color, particularly Black people, have long been at the forefront of the anti-police movements, and we credit Black theorists like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton for—decades ago—correctly identifying the function of police within our society and their antagonism to the working class. At our best, we only follow in the footsteps of these great revolutionaries.
But despite the reactionary rhetoric and resistance we encountered at this convention, we also met a lot of comrades, old and new, and for that reason alone we don’t consider this a defeat. If this movement is to succeed, it will only be through the unified efforts of rank-and-file AFSCME membership. So every connection we make, every person who for maybe the first time ever begins to question the presence of police and jailers within their union, every worker who realizes they are not alone and that collectively we have the power to build a labor movement that fights for the entire working class—those are victories we guard preciously.
That’s why we’ll never stop fighting, and neither should you. The contradictory state of the labor movement cannot hold, and now is the time to choose a side. AFSCME can no longer have it both ways. We demand a union that truly fights for racial justice and a strong and united multiracial movement of the working class. We demand a Cop-Free AFSCME!
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