The Tompkins County Workers’ Center strongly opposes the equation of police benevolent associations with labor unions. This statement explains why our commitment to both racial justice and the rights of workers leads us to distinguish between trade unions and organizations designed to reinforce the formidable power of policing.
The past year has seen an explosion in collective action and interest in addressing the problems that American policing poses to working people, and to Black people in particular. In our community, the mayor of Ithaca has introduced a plan attempting to meet the moment, which would appear to eliminate the positions of all current Ithaca Police Department police officers and rebrand them as “armed public safety officers.” The plan includes the suggestion that all current IPD officers would need to reapply for positions in the new “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety.”
This move has been called union-busting by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the organization that represents and protects the interests of IPD officers, as well as the regional AFL-CIO. For community members who support workers’ interests, including their right to organize, and who also wish for solutions to problems with our criminal legal system, these aims may seem to be in conflict here. We at TCWC feel the dissolution of PBAs is a positive step in advancing working class interests and making our communities safer.
In a nation that was built on the enslavement of Black people for hundreds of years, modern police departments can be traced back to slave patrols deployed to catch Black people escaping from slavery to freedom. Later, as industrialized labor became organized to win more just and safe working conditions, police were deployed to violently suppress workers struggling for better lives.
Today, American police are often on the frontline of enforcing policies and economic conditions that oppress Black people and poor working class people, much as they have done historically. They enforce eviction orders when community members can’t make rent, and they imprison people for stealing food they cannot afford to feed themselves with. Police are still deployed to violently suppress workers organizing for demands as simple as a dollar raise to things as dire as wishing not to be murdered in the street.
Our police commit outright violent crimes with impunity, and this is in large part due to the power of PBAs. These organizations are different from labor unions, as policing is different from other occupations. When the police murder a civilian, their first call is often to their PBA representative. PBAs do not exist to exist to protect workers’ hard won gains in the workplace — they exist to protect the unjust role of policing in society, and protect officers from the community’s desired discipline and accountability for their actions.
If this were any other occupation, we at the Workers’ Center would not dismiss accusations of union busting. But the working class needs our governments to move on from traditional American policing, and invest directly in the communities who have been over-policed and under-represented. We need to move on from police benevolent associations, and instead increase union membership in professions that build our community rather than tear it apart.
We are not endorsing the mayor’s proposal; we would rather see less money spent on policing and more money spent on community programs that truly keep people safe, like youth programs, affordable housing, and food access.