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King County Labor Chooses Black Lives Over Blue Solidarity

09-Aug-2020Whitney Kahn

I want you to think about what inspires you throughout history,said local educator and Seattle Education Association member Jesse Hagopian. He was speaking to a thousand people gathered at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone for the SPOG Out Now rally on June 17th. “What are the social movements that you look to in moments like this when we need to make change?”

The rally was organized by rank-and-file union workers, many of us socialists, trying to change our union labor council from below. We planned for it to be on the same night that the Martin Luther King County Labor Council (MLKCLC) was voting on whether or not to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild , something that just weeks before no one had thought possible. “And then I want you to think about what side the police were on in that struggle,” Jesse finished.

In 2014, the same year that the Ferguson uprising ignited the modern Black Lives Matter movement, the MLKCLC, representing 100,000 workers in the greater Seattle area, welcomed the SPOG into their ranks. In 2018, the year after Charleena Lyles, an expecting mother, was killed by the police in her own home by the very police she had called to assist her, the MLKCLC vocally championed the police contract which removed limited accountability measures that Seattle had recently adopted. But this year, during the height of the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, the MLKCLC voted to kick SPOG out of the labor council with 55% of delegates voting in favor.

It’s worth noting just how disgusting the actions of SPOG have been over the past few years. As the Seattle DSA statement on this vote says:

SPOG has consistently played a reactionary role reinforcing the racist and unaccountable character of the Seattle Police. In their 2018 contract SPOG fought to overturn the very limited police accountability the City of Seattle had recently established. SPOG also pushed for the City and County to spend hundreds of millions of our tax-dollars on a new police bunker and a new youth jail. SPOG has a long history of publishing racist material in their union newspaper. Now SPOG is trying to overturn the ban on rubber bullets, tear gas, and other chemical weapons that the protests pressured the City council to pass.

The Seattle DSA statement also points out that SPOG did all this with the backing of the past and current leadership in the labor council.

[MLKCLC Executive Secretary-Treasurer] Nicole Grant said at the time [of the 2018 police contract], ‘It’s time for supporters of police reform to back off and allow workers to have their raise.’ The Labor Council leadership criticized the socialist, Kshama Sawant, for being the only city councilmember to vote against the 2018 SPOG contract... the majority of labor leaders opposed other left-wing candidates in recent years like Nikkita Oliver, Shaun Scott, and Jon Grant, who ran on platforms opposing SPOG and police racism... the Labor Council nominated SPOG for its “Volunteer of the Year” award at the “Labor Oscars” in 2018. This led Seattle DSA to turn down the Labor Council’s request to endorse and donate to the event.

But now, after years of consciousness-raising Black Lives Matter protests with no meaningful reforms to show for it, this wave of the movement has finally broken through the “hold the line and admit no wrongdoing” establishment resistance. This wave of rebellion is shaking every institution to its core, achieving what recently seemed impossible. Fueled by the power of this mass movement, it took only two weeks for the demand to kick SPOG out of the labor council to go from a petition started by Highline Public Schools educators to a done deal.

The petition to kick SPOG out was started by Highline educators of color in a caucus they call HiCORE (Highline Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators). As HiCORE member Rupika Madhavan recalled,

When unions go on strike, who’s brought in? It’s the police… so getting SPOG out of the Labor Council was not a brand new idea. Folks in HiCORE were in relationship with people who have been doing that work and were told that there was more movement around getting SPOG out now, and that now would be a prime time to act because of the labor of DefundSPD organizers. So we started working on a petition for BIPOC union members that basically said police are not labor, they do not belong in the labor council, and that the MLK Labor Council had to choose between us (BIPOC union members) or SPOG.

Their caucus is modeled after the Chicago Teachers Union caucus, CORE, which won a leadership election in 2012 against a conservative establishment that “led” the union by accepting and overseeing school closures and budget cuts.

So it’s not a coincidence that the Highline district workers who started this petition were organized as a similar rank-and-file caucus, even borrowing the name from Chicago. There’s power in being organized around a class-struggle strategy, and the battle over SPOG’s role in the MLKCLC is a small reflection of the same sort of conflicting visions for the labor movement that has played out in Chicago.

Even though the rank-and-file caucus in Highline was small, the fact that these educators were already organized allowed them to give a lead to other workers. Their petition was spread through many channels, including through a HiCORE member who was also a member of Seattle DSA which is how I and others in DSA first heard about the petition. The next day at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) police-free zone, I ran into a fellow rank-and-file educator, Anna Hackman from AFT 1789, who I knew from previous organizing.

Anna would later describe our thinking at the time. “We really had a very small part in the grand scheme of things. A lot of people were already doing a lot of work… HiCORE had circulated this petition calling on BIPOC union workers to sign to vote to expel. The delegates were already talking… All of these different pockets were trying to find their way in… So rather than trying to find our way in, [we wanted to] try to find a way to bring the MLK Labor Council out to the movement, and hold itself accountable to us. So if they’re going to do those same kinds of backroom deals, they have to do it in front of us."

A week later, reaching out to rank-and-file members we knew in other unions, we would host a rally of over one thousand right there in the CHOP led by unionized workers from across the city.

Our ability to exercise power depends on being politically organized in our unions and more broadly. Because the Highline educators were organized, they were able to pull together a petition that sparked this battle and was a beacon for union activists across the county to demand accountability from their union representatives. Because DSA members were organized across unions, we were able to pull our connections together quickly. Because a group of teachers at Seattle Central College had begun organizing as rank-and-file members of AFT 1789, they were able to act collectively as core organizers of the rally.

The power to do all of this came from the movement, and that power was able to be harnessed because small pockets of anti-racist rank-and-file union members were organized. There was much more organizing that went on beyond this rally, but the rally shined a spotlight on the vote, brought the public in, and labor council delegates were even watching the live-stream of the rally during the meeting. It all turned out to be just enough of a push to force the MLKCLC to vote 55%-45% to expel SPOG from the labor council, making Seattle the first area to do so since the murder of George Floyd.

One thing that kept ringing out in the speeches by union members at the rally was that this had been a push from below, and that showing SPOG the door was not enough. As Manuel Carrillo, a barista, a member of UNITE/HERE local 8, and a DSA member, said at the rally:

“Kicking out SPOG is not enough to turn our labor movement into the anti-racist movement we know it can be. It is important to not forget that SPOG was aided in all of this by the majority of the leadership on the Labor Council. The majority of the Labor Council leadership actively supported SPOG in passing their 2018 contract that overturned very modest accountability measures. So we must keep pressure in our unions and in the labor council after we kick them out.”

Labor unions have the potential to be powerful fighters in battles against institutional racism and oppression, but that’s far from a given. Without an activated, organized membership—and under the pressure of the capitalist class—unions tend to become dominated by business-friendly leaderships that rely on a timid strategy of limiting demands to what is acceptable to the rich and powerful. In practice, this means upholding the racist status quo of capitalism.

This decision to kick out SPOG was a U-turn by the MLKCLC leadership so intense you could almost smell the burning rubber. This movement for Black lives was able to kick SPOG out of the labor council, but the same leadership that invited SPOG in the first place is still in charge. We should celebrate this victory, but we should also soberly assess that this is one small battle in a much larger debate within unions between two opposing strategies — class conciliation and class struggle.

The Movement Keeps Moving

This same coalition that built the rally to get SPOG out of the MLKCLC is now organizing to promote resolutions in our unions to endorse the demand for defunding 50% of the Seattle Police Department and reallocating those funds to community-led social services in Black and brown communities. With intense COVID-related cuts coming to vital departments, there can be no neutral voices in this debate — it’s either cutting the militarized police that oppress working-class communities of color, or cutting necessary social services that working people depend on. And what happens in Seattle doesn’t stay in Seattle. Local victories like this are building pressure for bigger change. On a national stage, unions are now calling for the AFL-CIO to disaffiliate from the International Association of Police Unions altogether.

Even as we fight to deepen labor’s commitment to the movement for Black lives and for reforms that partially lift the repressive police lid on the explosive social inequalities of capitalism, it is vital that labor fight against the inequality itself that the police are there to enforce. This must include bold calls for affordable housing for all, free universal healthcare, quality free education from pre-K through college, and guaranteed living wage jobs for everyone as well as reparations for slavery and institutional racism. Real public safety is only imaginable on the basis of these and other socialist policies aimed at fundamentally ending the deep racial and class inequities built into the fabric of this capitalist system.

These battles to pressure established union leaderships can win real gains for social movements, but they should also be seen as opportunities for rank-and-file activists to get further organized. We need to understand that, although establishment leaders can be pushed somewhat on this or that issue when they’re under huge amounts of pressure from below, we can’t just accept their concessions to mass pressure at face value and think we’ve turned them into the leaders we need. One hundred years ago, the labor council led a 5-day general strike in Seattle. Today, it’s a body that gets together once a month to passively vote on resolutions. These different forms reflect fundamentally different conceptions for what and who unions should fight for.

As Sundar Sharma of PROTEC-17 city workers’ union, also a DSA activist, said at the June 17th rally: “The COVID crisis and mass unemployment right now are highlighting the gaping inequalities that are felt acutely by black and brown workers everyday.” More than ever, as we barrel towards what could be the deepest crisis the capitalist system has ever faced, we need a union movement ready to fight against all forms of oppression. This should be connected to a strategy for building working-class power to transform society into one that serves human needs, rather than bowing down to corporate profiteers.

Pushing reluctant, conservative leaders has a limit — whether in unions or politics. Rank-and-file union activists should be using these opportunities to fight for a political revolution in our unions. That means rank-and-file caucuses that are boldly anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and with a movement-building strategy to fight for the needs of the entire multi-racial working class. That doesn’t just mean to have radical faces in high places, but to fundamentally transform how our unions are organized and function, so that they can become the boldly anti-racist, class-struggle vehicles we need.

Whitney Kahn is a paraeducator, a member of the Seattle Education Association, and Seattle DSA (Reform & Revolution caucus).