Calls to defund the police following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement forced many institutions to reckon with their complicity in upholding the police state. 

Following last summer’s historic protests against police brutality, Canadian unions released statements denouncing police violence and racial injustice. Some unions endorsed the movement, and vocalized their support for a reduction in police budgets and a reinvestment in community support structures. 

Yet these same labour unions count police, RCMP officers, border service agents and correctional officers among their membership. This is unacceptable. Law enforcement have no place in unions. 

A Brief History Of Police Unions

The ability of police to form unions is antithetical to the working-class, anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-war roots of unionism. At its core, unionism is an anti-capitalist emancipatory movement: Workers use unions as a way to leverage power against the ruling class. Meanwhile, police have always been concerned with protecting ruling class interests. 

Canadian police forces were created as a means of furthering the colonial agenda, by capturing formerly-enslaved people, forcing Indigenous people off their land and suppressing workers’ strikes. Police forces continue to fulfill this agenda, as is demonstrated by the incessant policing of Black people, the RCMP invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory and the arrest of locked-out Unifor workers fighting for their pensions.

For decades, Canadian police associations weren’t recognized as a legitimate labour body. It wasn’t until the 1940s, when an emergency Order-in-Council was passed granting many groups of government employees union certification, that police departments successfully gained bargaining rights. 

At that point, it was only the RCMP, Canada’s largest police force, that was still forbidden from forming any type of association aimed at furthering members’ interests. It wasn’t until 2015, when the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) intervened in a Supreme Court of Canada case to argue alongside the Canadian Police Association in favour of RCMP officers, that Canada’s largest police force was able to be recognized as a legitimate labour body. 

For the most part, police associations and unions aren’t affiliated with the CLC. Police associations have largely remained localized, adhering to smaller, more independent union structures, with a few exceptions being those who are represented by public sector unions, including PSAC, CUPE, OPSEU, CSN, BCGEU, AUPE, SGEU and MGEU

The Danger Of Police Unions

Public union leadership must understand that by choosing to advocate for state security forces, they are contributing to the harm these forces inflict on our communities.

By accessing collective bargaining rights, police have gained privileges not afforded to any other unionized worker. The unmatched lobbying power and military structure of police unions and associations has effectively enabled officers to act with impunity in the face of the law.

Earlier this year, professors Jamein Cunningham, Donna Feir and Rob Gillezeau published a study on the effect of police unionization on the rate of civilian deaths in the United States. The authors assumed that accessing collective bargaining rights would correlate with an increase in civilian deaths, believing that the risk of being prosecuted would be lower, thus shifting the officer’s considerations to use force on the job.

The authors found that gaining collective bargaining rights triggers a discriminatory use of force, specifically if the police are in the presence of racialized men. The number of deaths attributable to unionization increased steadily throughout the 1970s, reaching at least 30 additional non-white deaths per year in the ’80s. 

The study further revealed that between 1959 and 1988, 10 per cent of non-white civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement were due to police gaining collective bargaining rights. Gillezeau told Vice that “officers are actually bargaining in the United States for the ability to discriminate in their use of force.” 

There are countless examples in Canada as well of police unions defending officers who assault and kill civilians, and providing them with paid legal counsel should their use of force be questioned. 

In 1987, for example, J.J. Harper, a member of the Wasagamack First Nation and executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, was killed by Winnipeg Police Officer Robert Cross. As the Montreal Gazette reported, John Campbell, the Winnipeg Police Association (WPA) President at the time, “was a central figure in the police union’s struggle to prevent Manitoba’s native-justice inquiry from investigating the shooting.” 

The WPA attempted to obstruct the accountability process by filing a court motion to exempt Harper’s shooting from the inquiry, arguing that the inquiry wasn’t translated to French, thus violating the Manitoba Act, and applying for an injunction to prevent police from turning over their notes reporting the incident. The investigation did eventually proceed, and Cross’ lawyer maintained that he was “doing his duty.”

Police unions have also enabled the hyper militarization of police forces.

In the mid-70s, price and wage controls were put on all government employees, including police officers. Since monetary issues were off the table, police associations decided to focus on non-monetary items, therefore expanding the issues subject to negotiation, such as manpower allocation. 

Deployment of the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams, the most heavily armed and armoured police units, has become normalized for policing activities like executing warrants, traffic enforcement and responding to mental health crises and domestic disturbances. In a Conversation article, researchers Kevin Walby and Brendan Roziere write, “In 1980, the average yearly number of deployments for Canadian tactical units was about 60 total per unit. Our results show the average yearly number of deployments for Canadian tactical units is now approximately 1,300 per unit, an increase of roughly 2,100 per cent in 37 years.”

Police unions today continue to defend the right of officers to be armed and forces to hyper militarize, despite it being proven that police militarization increases violence against civilians. 

Membership Push-Back

Ever since police first tried to access bargaining rights, labour activists have been fighting to keep police out of unions. This is based on the recognition that unions can’t properly represent workers terrorized by these agents of the state. 

In 2018, CUPE announced they had organized nearly 1,300 RCMP telecom operators and intercept monitor analysts, causing a backlash from existing membership and the creation of the campaign Cops out of CUPE

Advocates brought motions to the union’s 2018 and 2019 provincial conventions and the 2019 national convention demanding union leadership reject the inclusion of state security forces. The national motion argued that the inclusion of state security forces in the union was directly at odds with its support for the Black Lives Matter movement and solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation. 

Unions are the players on the institutional left with some of the deepest pockets, most substantial political influence and greatest potential to disrupt state-sanctioned violence. As such, unions barring police from joining their ranks is an important step in the larger abolition movement.

Unions can’t properly represent the working class if they are simultaneously supporting the bodies that suppress workers’ strikes, invade Indigenous territory, surveil those with precarious status and assault and murder community (and union) members. 

So long as they defend and expand policing, unions will be complicit in the harm police forces enact on our communities. Including law enforcement in our membership should be viewed as nothing but a blatant willingness to endorse the worst behaviours of the police, and prevent any form of retribution in their aftermath.

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