How Police Unions Became so Powerful — and How they Can Be TamedHistorians in the News
tags: Police, urban history, labor history
The creation of police unions was a somewhat ironic twist in American labor history, University of Minnesota labor historian Will Jones tells me, given that the creation of urban police forces was largely spurred by a desire to contain union activism and protest.
“The whole creation of the police force in the late 19th century was largely in response to labor conflict,” Jones says. Police departments emerged and evolved as adjuncts to the sheriff’s departments and private detective agencies (like the Pinkertons) that bosses typically enlisted to fight union activists.
The (rough) anniversary of the Haymarket affair of 1886, a protest against anti-union violence by police in which an unknown assailant threw a bomb at Chicago police and a firefight broke out, is still commemorated on May 1 as International Workers’ Day in numerous countries worldwide. Union demonstrators and police would square off repeatedly in ensuing decades: in Cleveland in 1894, Philadelphia in 1910, Minneapolis in 1934, Chicago in 1937, and Hilo, Hawaii, in 1938, among many other incidents.
The anti-union role of police began to ebb in the first half of the 20th century with the coming of the New Deal and the Great Migration of Black workers from the South to Northern cities, says Aaron Bekemeyer, a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard whose dissertation documents the emergence of police unions in Philadelphia and nationally.
The New Deal, especially the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, legalized a lot of union activity, including strikes, and so shunted the task of managing labor conflict from local police to federal bureaucrats. The Great Migration, in turn, gave urban police another population to police, namely Black people. “Policing of Black neighborhoods, drug policing, gang policing become what these big-city police forces do,” Bekemeyer says.
The trend of allowing public sector unions began in New York City, when Mayor Robert Wagner Jr., the son of Sen. Robert Wagner who wrote the National Labor Relations Act, issued regulations that allowed collective bargaining by municipal employees in 1958. Wisconsin followed suit in 1959, and many states came after that. In 1962, the federal government under John F. Kennedy legalized collective bargaining for its employees. The spread of this idea helped fuel the growth of teachers unions, sanitation workers unions, and other public employee unions — including police unions.
The rise in violent crime in the 1960s, riots in places like Watts in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and nationwide in 1968, and the rise of tough-on-crime policing targeted at Black neighborhoods also enhanced the political power of police unions: “The police unions say, ‘Hey, we’re the ones doing this work and protecting you, implied white listener, from dangerous Black people, and you need the gains unions need. Union interests are public interests,’” says Bekemeyer.
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