Policing and Racial Capitalism

Police Unions And The Labor Movement

A Contested History and an Uncertain Future

Delana Sobhani

August 21, 2023

When police officers descended on a construction site in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 2008, they weren’t there to respond to an emergency or to investigate a crime. They came to harass civilian flaggers directing traffic. According to a local journalist who covered the incident, they became “so disruptive that the local police were called in to restore order.” Massachusetts had just become the last state in the country to allow civilian flaggers to work construction sites—a common practice given that construction details don’t require expertise. This new policy was enacted over the vigorous protest of police unions, which had fought hard to keep construction details reserved for police officers. 

Resentment over losing road jobs to civilians festered for years. Mark Granger and Brian Hoyle, two civilian flaggers who worked a construction project in 2012, were constantly tormented by police. “It’s been something every day or every other day, whether it’s flipping you the bird or taking your picture or ticketing,” Hoyle told MassLive, adding that a police cruiser narrowly missed him as it sped down the street. “I understand their frustrations, but don’t get mad at me. I didn’t design the contract,” Granger said. “I don’t want to get in a war with the cops but I’m not going to be intimidated every day.”

Ultimately, civilian flaggers were not the threat Massachusetts police feared. Almost 15 years have passed since Massachusetts legalized civilian flaggers, yet police officers continue to work the vast majority of construction detail jobs across the state. Police have maintained their monopoly on construction details in large part because of police unions, which almost always negotiate contracts with municipalities requiring local road jobs to go to police officers.   

Civilian flaggers have come up again in the current negotiations over Boston’s police union contract. At a recent City Council hearing, local activists spoke about the need to break up “the nonsensical monopoly the BPD [Boston Police Department] has on construction details, so more residents can work good-paying union jobs with benefits.” In response, the Boston police union posted a picture of the activists on its Twitter, accusing them of “cop-blaming” and “cop-hating.”

A tweet from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association with a picture of community organizers who testified at a public hearing on 12/01/2022 about the police union contract.

Screenshot of a tweet from the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, @BostonPatrolmen.

The story of Massachusetts police officers organizing to intimidate and oust civilian flaggers illustrates the paradoxical position police unions occupy in the labor movement. Policing in America developed to protect the interests of those with private property and capital—interests largely at odds with the labor movement and its goal to build worker power. Given this incongruity, it’s unsurprising that police have used collective bargaining to amass political and economic power at the expense of other workers, particularly workers of color, whom police may harass, surveil, attack, and kill with impunity. 

Policing in America developed to protect the interests of those with private property and capital—interests largely at odds with the labor movement and its goal to build worker power.

Police unions have thrived while undermining the broader labor movement. Unpacking why reveals the potential opportunities, and limitations, of labor law and organizing in the work toward abolition.

History of Police and Police Unions

Police unions are arguably the most powerful kinds of unions in today’s labor landscape. Why, in an era when unions are under attack, have police unions been so successful? A brief foray into the history of policing and police unions demonstrates that police unions are uniquely situated to flourish because of racial capitalism—a term coined by scholar Cedric J. Robinson to express the idea that racialized exploitation and capital accumulation are inextricably intertwine. In the words of Professor and legal scholar Amna Akbar, “police are central not only to racialization but to capitalism, and capitalism’s dependence on racialization and violence.”

The origins of policing in America are rooted in slave patrols, whose sole purpose was to “maintain control over enslaved people through a system of terror.”

After slavery was abolished in the United States, militia-style groups replaced slave patrols to enforce Black Codes, laws designed to subjugate formerly enslaved people and ensure a cheap labor force. With the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th century, municipalities established police departments to enforce racial segregation and subordination. 

Around the same time, police forces emerged to contain the burgeoning labor movement. “The institution of policing is very much connected to the enactment of violence against strikers and union-breaking,” Chenjerai Kumanyika, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, told NPR’s All Things Considered. Municipal police often used “public order” laws to arrest workers and prevent them from organizing. 

As United States entered the industrial era, capitalists hired private paramilitaries to control the working-class communities who comprised their labor force. In Pennsylvania, coal companies funded the Iron and Coal Police to end strikes and bust unions. To that end, the Iron and Coal Police killed 19 immigrant miners who were protesting for equal pay and better conditions in the Lattimer Massacre of 1897. After the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 led to a nationwide coal shortage, Pennsylvania formed the State Police, whose new chief promised, “one State Policeman should be able to handle one hundred foreigners.”

It wasn’t just Pennsylvania. Private, local, and federal police forces served to disrupt labor organizing through violence across the country. The Colorado National Guard and the private police force for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company launched a brutal assault on striking coal workers and their families in the Ludlow Massacre of 1914; over 66 people were killed, including 11 children. When shirtwaist workers went on strike for better pay and safer working conditions in the Uprising of the 20,000, they were met with mass arrests and police brutality. Over the course of the strike, union leader Clara Lemlich was arrested 17 times and suffered 6 broken ribs. In the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in American history, local police and company supporters shot at marching West Virginia miners with machine guns and dropped homemade bombs from planes. And during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, more than 100 police fired into a crowd of unarmed workers, killing two picketers and injuring 65 others.