Collective action is the source of working people’s power. It is the source of the labor movement’s power. It is the source of power that has enabled workers to secure – through unionization and collective bargaining – fairness and dignity at work, living wages, protection against discrimination and harassment, and safe and healthy working conditions. It is the source of power that has allowed working people to demand progressive legislation, to push the nation forward on questions of civil rights, political rights and economic rights. In recent years, it has enabled teachers to win funding for their classrooms, fast food workers to increase the minimum wage, and nurses to negotiate staffing ratios to ensure adequate care for COVID patients. Collective action and collective bargaining are treasures that deserve fierce protection.
But collective action is, at bottom, just a source of power. And like all sources of power, it can be abused. When unions use the power of collective bargaining for ends that we, as a democratic society, deem unacceptable it becomes our responsibility – including the responsibility of the labor movement itself – to deny unions the ability to use collective bargaining for these purposes. We have done this before. When unions bargained contracts that excluded Black workers from employment or that relegated Black workers to inferior jobs, the law stepped in and stripped unions of the right to use collective bargaining in these ways.
The killing of George Floyd and the events of the last week require us to recognize that police unions have abused the power of collective bargaining in indefensible ways. These unions have used collective bargaining to protect their members from accountability for racist killing. And, in doing so, they may well have made such killing more likely and more frequent. Here is what the data tell us:
- The extension of collective bargaining rights to Florida sheriffs’ offices led to an estimated 40% increase in violent incidents among sheriffs’ offices that elected to unionize.
- A study using data from America’s 100 largest cities found that police protections created via union contract were significantly and positively correlated with the killing of unarmed civilians.
- A forthcoming paper finds that the introduction of collective bargaining rights for police officers between the 1950s and 1980s led to modest increases in police compensation, insignificant impacts on total crime, and substantial increases in police killings of civilians with disproportionate impact on racial minorities.
A wide array of changes is necessary to end police violence, and even vaster changes needed to address structural racism’s deeper effects on the nation. But, for a labor movement committed to building a more equitable economy and society – and for scholars who support that movement – now is the time to demand that the power of collective action not be available to unions who would abuse it in this way. What particular shape that demand should take requires our immediate attention, and it is a project the Labor and Worklife Program plans to undertake at Harvard Law School in the near term. Scholars already have proposed some possibilities: opening police collective bargaining sessions to public oversight; giving community groups a seat at the bargaining table; ending exclusive representative unionism for police, and instead encouraging a multiplicity of representatives in order to facilitate more diverse views on critical subjects. Another path forward has received less attention but is worth careful consideration: public sector bargaining laws could be amended to strictly curtail the range of subjects over which police unions have the right to bargain. The law, in brief, would permit collective bargaining by police only with respect to matters related to wages and benefits. Collective bargaining over any subject that implicates the use of force, including collective bargaining over disciplinary matters, would be prohibited.
Whatever approach we take, it is critical that reforms are focused solely on the problem to be addressed – namely, police misconduct and violence. Police union reform, that is, cannot become a stalking horse for those with a political agenda to attack public sector unions generally. It cannot become a means to undermine the incredibly valuable work these other unions do to advance the interests of teachers, nurses, sanitation workers, and public servants of all kinds. But changes to the law governing police unions are necessary and must be sufficiently robust to enable far-reaching reform of police practice.