Friday, June 12, 2020


     So it turns out that police unions are bad actors.  (Yes, I am way late to this.)   Will Bunche, in a recent opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, likens police unions to "A protection racket, sounding more like the Mafia than anything 'benevolent.'"  As difficult as it is for me to watch the videos and hear the accounts of police murder and brutality, it's almost as hard to watch the displays of solidarity from police unions as they circle the wagons.  And as I learn about the role they've played, and continue to play, in perpetuating the institutionalized racism that exists in the law enforcement community today, I have to admit to a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance, because for me union has always equaled good.
     There's more.   According to a June 7 news article, Public Integrity contacted the leaders of ten major unions and labor groups:
None were willing to talk about police unions.  Trumka, of the AFL-CIO, was too busy to chat.  The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union couldn't fit a call into his schedule.  Teamsters President James Hoffa declined to comment.
     Silence from the Service Employees Union, The American Federation  of State, County, and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers of America, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers.
     My union, the NEA, and its state affiliate NJEA, have posted strong statements in support of racial justice, and called for a federal push to overhaul police practices.  But, at least as of the time I write this, they have been quiet on the matter of police unions and the role they have played in protecting members that have absolutely no business carrying a shield and a gun.  Maybe that will change.  But that change will be difficult, because it will require some serious self-reflection and soul-searching.               

     I was a proud, dues paying member of the teacher's union my entire career.  I knew that the only reason I earned the wage I did, and enjoyed the benefits and working conditions I did, was because of union solidarity.  Same goes for the benefits I now enjoy in retirement.  (I also know what it feels like to be a member of a union under siege, because I was a teacher during the reign of Chris Christie.  Christie made his reputation by making the NJEA his personal punching bag.  He bullied us on air and in person.  He told us we were turning our students into "drug mules."  He encouraged newspaper editorial writers and talk show hosts and callers on NJ 101.5 as they vilified us: we were greedy, selfish, and lazy.  We didn't deserve our health care or our pensions.  We were the reason New Jersey was in such dire financial straits.  We were the reason the education system was failing.  It was all our fault.)  I knew that in 1984, just two years before I started, teachers in the district had gone on strike.  They walked a picket line, were fined, and some had even been arrested and served jail time.  Those teachers, and others before them, helped win me those benefits, and I saw it as my responsibility to make sure they were there for the next generation of teachers.  I served many years as a building rep, with all the responsibilities that position entails.  And though we never went out on strike, I participated in plenty of job actions: writing letters, wearing buttons and shirts, working "to the contract" by entering and/or leaving the building not a minute before/after the negotiated start/end time, showing up and speaking out at Board of Ed meetings, rallying outside central office during negotiation sessions.  I knew those negotiations were extremely important; they would affect our salaries, benefits, working conditions, and job protections.  
     Job protections.  Lord knows, I knew good teachers, great teachers, who were the target of extremely unfair smear campaigns from vindictive administrators and unhappy parents.  In many of those cases, a union rep or a union lawyer was the only thing standing between them and career oblivion.  That could've been me.  And as I rose ever higher on the salary guide, and the district could afford to hire two teachers for my one salary, who was to say that I might be the next one with a target on my back?  Knowing that I had the union behind me was no small comfort.  And who knew what laws the government might enact that would curtail those benefits and protections?  As one of our union lobbyists put it, "I'm the guy you pay to protect you from the guys you elect."  
     How far did those job protections extend?  I mean, I've also known teachers who've had no business being in front of a class.  I had one or two as a student myself (so did my kids) and as colleagues.  The no-patience serial screamers and sarcastic insulters.  The burned out and jaded, phoning-it-in morale killers.  The ones whose classroom no parent who was in-the-know wanted their kid in.  The ones who make kids cry.  They got harassed with bad evaluations and transferred from grade to grade and school to school in the hopes that they'd just give up and quit.  Some did, but other hung on.  Did the contract make it too difficult to fire them? Did the union protect them, too?  What did that make me, as an active union supporter?  It's true, we're not allowed to exercise state-sanctioned acts of physical violence like the police. (In New Jersey, anyway.  There are nineteen states that allow corporal punishment in schools.)  However what kind of state sanctioned emotional violence are we allowed to commit?  What is our responsibility when we witness that kind of violence?  Do we have a "duty to intervene"?  What is our union's responsibility?  Is our silence complicity?


     In 1931, during the bloody miners strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, armed deputies hired by the coal company were enlisted to root out union leaders and their sympathizers, many of whom were beaten, jailed, and even killed.  One night, in an attempt at intimidation, Sheriff J.H. Blair and his men illegally entered union leader Sam Reece's house and conducted a search.  Reece, warned in advance, had fled.  His wife Florence, home alone with their seven children, watched in terror as the sheriff and his deputized thugs ransacked the house and kept watch outside, ready to shoot him if he returned.  
     Later, she tore a sheet off an old wall calendar and composed the lyrics to what would become one of the most haunting and inspiring union songs ever written.  It's a desperate plea and a rallying cry, comprised of six verses and set to the tune of what is either an old Baptist hymn or a British ballad.  She titled it after the one simple question repeated in the chorus.  It was a question directed at working men and women, commanding them to choose: you're either with us or against us.  And it's a question echoing from those coal mines right back at us at this very moment: 

Which side are you on?

     I still believe in the union.  Without it, we're powerless to control our working conditions and the economic terms under which we ply our trade.  But as I look outward and try to understand what is going right now in our country and the changes that need to take place, I'm looking inward too.  At my own preconceptions and beliefs, my own action and inaction, and my own blind spots.  And I want my union to do the same.