News & Commentary

June 7, 2020

Maxwell Ulin

Maxwell Ulin is a student at Harvard Law School.

As many readers experienced, OnLabor’s website was down for several hours yesterday, a problem caused by a flood of new access requests that overwhelmed the page.  Much as we would like to think that the sudden spike in OnLabor traffic was legitimate, the more likely backstory is that the website experienced a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, a form of cyberattack that targets a web host by flooding it with requests for access until the page crashes.  The attack comes as anti-racist websites and organizations experience a dramatic increase in cyberattacks in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd.

In the midst of the demonstrations, debate has begun heating up over the role of police unions in undermining police accountability.  As the New York Times reports, police unions have stood among some the most vocal roadblocks to reform nationwide, while collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) have frequently enshrined a cultural “code of silence” into police contracts.  Often, local officials have conceded to police unions’ demands for police misconduct protections in exchange for lower wages and benefits to keep city budgets in the black.  Fortunately, unlike in private sector, states have the power to regulate collective bargaining rights in the public sector and can limit police unions’ power to bargain over disciplinary protections in use-of-force cases.  The Boston Globe Editorial Board has effectively endorsed this position, while our own Ben Sachs has put forth similar proposals to limit the scope of police unions’ collective bargaining power. Others have called for a more radical approach; writing in The New Republic, progressive labor reporter Kim Kelly has called for abolishing police unions entirely.

Public debate has given rise to increased tensions among labor leaders over police union’s role within the movement.  Much of the current disagreement has centered around the AFL-CIO’s continued affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA), which represents around 100,000 police officers nationwide.  On the one hand, various pro-labor civil rights groups have called for the Federation to disaffiliate with the IUPA or demand major reforms.  On Friday, the Flight Attendants union (AFA-CWA) called on the AFL-CIO and its members to demand that the IUPA and other police-union members impose greater accountability measures for police misconduct in their CBAs or be expelled from the Federation.  At the local level, Seattle’s King County Labor Council has given an ultimatum to the Seattle Police Officer Guild with a similar list of demands for continued membership.  Similarly in New York, seven locals signed a resolution last week calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill DeBlasio to hold the NYPD more accountable for misconduct.  On the other hand, other members of the labor movement oppose the Federation’s imposing contract demands on its members, preferring a big-tent approach at a time when union rights are under attack. The debate touches on a broader strategic tension between progressive and conservative labor leaders, with progressives advocating that unions adopt a broader social change agenda and conservatives championing a narrower mission focused on obtaining better wages and benefits for members.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has sought to bridge this divide by decrying racial injustice but opposing efforts to reform or expel police unions from the Federation.

Friday’s monthly jobs report brought welcome, if unexpected, news, showing that over two million Americans obtained work over the past month.  Republicans in particular celebrated the report, which arguably bolstered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s case for refusing to extend emergency unemployment benefits past July.  Not all of the figures from Friday’s jobs report were so rosy, however; around 2.3 million Americans reported permanently losing their jobs in May. Black and Hispanic unemployment also increased, reflecting a consistent trend of racial disparities in unemployment during economic downturns.  What is more, a major misclassification error plaguing Bureau of Labor Statistics reports since the pandemic began likely resulted in a three-point undercount in the unemployment rate.  Accounting for the mistake, the nationwide jobless rate likely stands closer to 16.3%, rather than the widely-reported 13.3%.

Despite their optimism from the monthly jobs report, Republicans still acknowledge the need for a new coronavirus relief bill in the coming months.  Little appetite appears to remain among conservatives for another multi-trillion-dollar legislative package, however, like the one House Democrats passed earlier this month.  Much of the focus, instead, may be on providing additional benefits to support small businesses and even incentivizing Americans to return to work.  In Idaho, lawmakers have already moved ahead of the curve, as the state now plans to use $100 million in federal relief funds to create a one-time “back-to-work” benefit of $1,500 for returning full-time workers and $750 for part-time employees.

On a final note, as media attention has begun moving away from coverage of the protests and towards the attendant looting, it is worth keeping the damage in perspective with important worker’s rights factoid: according to the Economic Policy Institute, wage theft accounts for nearly three times more in stolen wealth nationwide than traditional robbery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the $933 million stolen from workers 2012, a disproportionate sum came out of the paychecks of workers of color.

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