Kicking the Cops Out in Seattle

Police at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle | Photo by Kelly Kline

On June 17, the affiliated unions of the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild from membership on the council. The result was announced after nearly four hours of procedural false starts, tense debate, and one instance of pornographic Zoom bombing. The council represents more than 100,000 union members in King County; the roll call tally saw votes representing 55% of those members cast in favor of expulsion.

Getting SPOG out of the county labor council means that the largest union of police officers in the area will no longer enjoy the protection of local labor’s highest body, nor will it be able to influence the decisions of that body. Since joining the council in 2014, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has been one of its more notable conservatizing forces. While SPOG only has about 1,270 members, they’re more than capable of throwing their weight around, consistently building coalitions to endorse against left-wing candidates in local races. The issue of their own union contract in 2018, which overturned some minimal accountability measures, also exposed a deep rift: When the labor council recommended that the Seattle city council ratify that contract, socialist councilor Kshama Sawant was the lone “no” vote; in turn, the labor council endorsed against Sawant in her 2019 reelection campaign.

Two years later, the same executive board that publicly backed the police union against Sawant voted 18-8 to recommend its expulsion, sending the motion on to a vote of the full council. What changed?

For one thing, massive unrest has swept the country since the police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis. Seattle is no stranger to police violence. The city’s police department has been under federal consent decree since 2012 for a “‘pattern or practice’ of unconstitutional use of force,” and the recent protests have brought attention to the spate of unarmed civilians killed by SPD in the past few years. Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black woman killed by officers in front of her children after making a 911 call in 2017, is becoming a household name even among people who were never part of the activist scene; so is Shaun Fuhr, who was shot in the head while carrying his one-year-old child by officers responding to a call from his girlfriend.

But make no mistake: cultural changes alone don’t account for winning a vote like this. It took organizing among rank and file union members to move a stubborn, entrenched institution like the King County Labor Council.

On June 1, members of HiCORE began circulating a petition to remove SPOG from the King County Labor Council. HiCORE — the Highline Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators — is a rank and file union caucus, modeled on the Chicago Teachers Union’s militant CORE, for educators in the Highline School District south of Seattle. While they asked that only union members identifying as BIPOC sign the petition, they encouraged white union members to share the petition and to flood the labor council’s executive board with calls and emails demanding SPOG’s expulsion.

“By including SPOG as a member, the labor council is legitimizing the idea that police officers’ labor is justifiable at the cost of the lives of Black and Brown people,” read one section of the petition. “No contract should protect a union if their work is detrimental to other workers and their families…The labor council must represent the interests of the police union and is unable to speak out against their actions as long as SPOG is part of the labor council.”

The council executive board responded quickly, moving to instead adopt a resolution that would give SPOG two weeks to meet a short list of demands that included acknowledging its problems as a racist institution and committing to “addressing racism within SPOG as an institutional actor and ensuring that contracts do not evade legitimate accountability.”

It speaks volumes about the shift from the technocratic police reform of the Obama era to the present moment that almost no one bought it.

Within days, members of AFT, NEA, UAW, and UFCW locals, among others, were organizing email drives to put pressure on the executive board to drop those “reform” agreements, whipping votes for expulsion, and collaborating to map their networks to cast as wide a net as possible. While these efforts included some local and state union leaders, the vast majority of the work was carried out by rank-and-file union members. In my own local, AFT 1789, rank-and-file teachers used the district’s all-faculty email list to demand an accounting of who our delegates were and a public declaration of support for expulsion from each of them.

Despite SPOG meeting with the executive board and agreeing to the demands, the board caved to the relentless pressure and went ahead with a vote to recommend SPOG’s expulsion. One state president said to activists after the vote that in their calls to other leaders in the days prior, they heard over and over again that the rank-and-file had been in non-stop contact with leadership to demand expulsion.

This persistent pressure from union members across the county, paired with the sea change in public attitudes toward police violence in recent weeks, was enough to overcome arguments against expulsion that might have overwhelmed the left wing of the labor movement in previous years. One persistent argument from “remainers” that socialist workers everywhere should be prepared to confront as the co-optation of social justice language continues apace: that every institution in this country is inherently racist, and so to condemn any union for racism while ignoring the others is hypocritical.

“Racism is the ocean we all swim in,” opined one delegate from the union representing Seattle police sergeants.

But the arguments from the floor — brave as many of them were — served as little more than icing on the cake. The real fight had been carried out and won in the days prior to the vote. While King County’s old guard argued vehemently that they needed to keep the police “in the fold,” and, failing that, tried to frame the demand for expulsion as one made by white activists speaking for and over Black workers, the vote went for it by a significant margin.

What comes next?

The King County vote may be a harbinger of things to come elsewhere, especially if labor activists take away the right lessons.

While the long-term local ramifications of this decision are still to be determined, the expulsion vote made two things clear: that the labor movement is potentially a powerful weapon in the fight for Black Lives, and that meaningful change within the labor movement can be driven by an active and organized layer of rank-and-file members.

It is possible for organized rank-and-file workers to leverage their power and win concrete, material demands. And an added benefit of taking on a fight like this is that it shows the public — who may otherwise be uninterested in or unaware of the bureaucratic machinations of entrenched labor power — that the fights for workers’ rights and for Black lives in America are inextricable. Organized labor isn’t just another “ally” in the fight for racial justice: it is the single biggest lever of power that ordinary people have access to, one of the only mechanisms by which people can extract meaningful concessions from the ruling class.

In order to do this, we must continue to emphasize the role that police play in a capitalist state. Outlining their inherent antagonism toward all workers, regardless of race, is one of the most powerful ways to counteract the liberal narrative of “bad actors” being the biggest problem we have to solve in order to heal our racial divides. And we should not shy away from the obvious, that police are tasked with enforcing the rules of capitalism. Rank-and-file workers must continue to organize to create a meaningful challenge to the inertia of labor bureaucracy.

Last, we need to confront the limitations of any single fight. One delegate, defending SPOG’s inclusion in the labor council, pointed out that a number of different union locals represent Seattle Police’s officers and staff, not just SPOG. The fight to defang the armed wing of the state will take more than a single vote in a single county, and unionized workers everywhere need to be clear-eyed about where they can and can not leverage their power against the American carceral system. Ultimately, no amount of defunding or ostracizing will solve the fundamental problem: that a capitalist state must have an armed wing to defend its interests, and that if we attempt to remove that wing from the public sector without also dismantling the larger capitalist system that necessitates it, what fills the void might be even more heinous. But it is through these necessary, smaller-scale fights that organized labor can build the muscles necessary to mount a credible challenge to the capitalist system as a whole, and so we must continue to take them head-on.