The Paradox of Police Unions

Photograph Source: Chad Davis – CC BY 2.0

The history of the American labor movement is rich and diverse—diverse, exhilarating, depressing, inspirational and heartbreaking. Ever since passage of the landmark National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), in 1935, unions have been recognized as the legal, government-sanctioned entities dedicated to improving the wages, benefits and working conditions of employees.

Clearly, unions matter. During the affluent 1950s, when this country’s vaunted middle-class was busy carving out its niche, union membership proudly stood at close to 35-percent. Today, with the middle-class under siege and continuing to be eroded, it hovers at barely 11-percent.

The invention of unions was predicated upon one simple principle: The time-honored belief that without some form of unified resistance—without the “strength in numbers” leverage that only collectivism can provide—workers would remain at the mercy of management’s self-serving definitions of “fair wages” and “adequate working conditions.” Simple as that.

When Douglas MacArthur was placed in charge of “reconstructing” Japan after World War II, he insisted that the Japanese establish labor unions (which they never had), fearing that, without them, management would become too powerful. It’s worth mentioning that General MacArthur was no “We shall overcome” liberal. He was a rightwing Republican.

Although most people tend to associate organized labor with traditional blue collar jobs and tradecrafts, when they take a closer look, they discover that America’s membership rolls (meager as they are) include men and women from all walks of life, in both the private and public sector.

In addition to the obvious—autoworkers, steel workers, truck drivers, electricians, machinists, et al—you will find pilots, flight attendants (many of them represented by the Teamsters), teachers, professors, engineers, architects, graduate students, nurses, computer programmers, and symphony orchestra musicians.

And among the sizeable number of union members employed in the public sector, the most visible and, lately, the most controversial (even more controversial than those beleaguered public school teachers, who were unfairly in the crosshairs for years) have been municipal police officers.

Though it seems odd—if not freakishly counter-intuitive—to think of these gun-toting neo-fascists as rank-and-file proles, police collectives are found all over the Western world. In the United States, arguably the most “capitalistic” nation on earth, the roots of police unionism can be traced all the way back to the nineteenth century. That whirring sound you hear in the background is Karl Marx spinning in his grave.

Some of today’s police collectives include: The Australian Federal Police Association, Scottish Police Federation, Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, Swedish Police Union, Police Federation of Northern Ireland, Norwegian Police Federation, Police Federation of England and Wales, Defense Police Federation (UK), National Black Police Association (US), and the National Association of Muslim Police (established in England, in 2007). There are a dozen more of these, including three in Canada.

The first important “quasi-union” established by a U.S. police department was the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of the City of New York (PBA). Founded as a fraternal organization in 1892, the PBA is today the largest labor union representing New York City police officers. The second largest, and one you don’t hear much about, is the Detectives Endowment Association of the City of New York.

From the outset, the PBA has been able to exert enormous leverage. Although the Association eschewed use of the term “union,” evidence of its influence can be seen in the fact that, as far back as 1901, it was able to negotiate an 8-hour workday, which, given the working conditions of the early twentieth century, was no small feat. In 1903, Mary “Mother” Jones led the drive to limit child laborers to only 55 hours a week. And these were children.

One can imagine the envy and resentment this 8-hour workday incited in the Boston police force, 220 miles up the road. Indeed, it must have tormented these Beantown patrolmen to no end. The Boston police department—which, almost two decades later, was still required to work 10 and 12-hour days and 75-90 hour weeks, and despite already being low-balled on wages and benefits—was still forced to pay for its own uniforms and gear. In order to hit people, they had to buy their own clubs.

In the eyes of Boston cops, while their New York brethren were being given the royal treatment, they themselves were being treated like freeloading relatives. Inevitably, their simmering discontent erupted into an historic strike that not only attracted national attention, but had a deleterious and lasting effect on the American labor movement.


The Boston Police Strike commenced on September 9, 1919. Significantly, this was just two years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, a cataclysmic event that changed the face of Europe and scared the bejeezus out of any number of monarchs and industrial moguls. As a consequence, this municipal labor dispute was instantly thrust into a larger context—an international political context—and was depicted in the American media as being Bolshevik-led.

While it’s likely that, today, any group of disgruntled cops—no matter what their issues—would be regarded as greedy, ungrateful bastards, that wasn’t the case in 1919. Greed played very little part in it. According to R.K. Murray’s Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, these striking police officers were shrilly portrayed as Communists, “deserters” and “agents of Lenin.” Given this emotionally charged atmosphere, the Boston police couldn’t have picked a worse time to stage a walkout.

Also, considering how far to the political right we have tilted in the last half-century, it’s hard to imagine there was a moment in history when U.S. citizens actually feared a peasant uprising—a Communist-led proletarian revolution. Not only hard to imagine, but with so many people convinced that the tame-as-a-puddle-duck Barack Obama (who likely would have been labeled a Rockefeller Republican in the mid-1970s) is a “socialist,” the very notion seems preposterous.

Unlike strikes whose provenance gets lost in rhetoric and saber-rattling, the cause of the 1919 strike was never in doubt; it was crystal clear to both sides from the very beginning. This was all about union ideology. Boston Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis had refused to allow his patrolmen—who had already formed their own fledgling union—to join the influential AFL (American Federation of Labor), led by the formidable Samuel Gompers, ex-president of the cigar makers union.

There were already 36 municipal police departments affiliated with the AFL, so the notion of these guys joining up wasn’t exactly an outlandish idea. But Commissioner Curtis was vehement in his opposition, having publicly vowed to do everything in his power to stop them. As for Gompers, as much as he approved of strikes, and as much as he would have welcomed another police department to the Federation, he already sensed trouble—not only in Boston, but in the country.

Aware that public fury was being fanned by the media’s anti-Communist hysteria, and fearing the damage that a prolonged strike could have on the labor movement, the president of the mighty AFL abruptly shifted gears. Gompers urged the men to call it off—call off the strike and return to work immediately.

Alas, it was too late. The governor of Massachusetts, 47-year old Calvin Coolidge, with one eye on public safety and the other eye on opinion polls, had already issued a categorical rebuke (“There is no right to strike against the public peace by anybody, anywhere, any time.”) reaffirming his support of Curtis’s hardline position and maintaining that these misguided patrolmen had irrevocably crossed a line.

And that was the ballgame. By choosing to withhold their labor, the police had ruined any chance of their returning to work. The city of Boston now viewed them not as “protesters,” but as traitors and cowards, and refused to rehire them. Instead, the city looked to State Guardsmen and volunteers to fill the vacancies, and with all the unemployed WWI veterans available, they had no problem finding takers.

Although the United Garment Workers demonstrated their union solidarity by refusing to sew uniforms for the new-hires (forcing them to bear the indignity of showing up for work in civilian clothes), Boston’s civic leaders poured salt in the wounds by giving the replacement workers better salaries and more vacation time than the strikers had. The replacements not only received a starting salary of $1400, but they got their own pension plan.

There were 1,544 police officers on the Boston force at the time of the strike, and 1117 had joined the walkout. Not only did these men lose their jobs (pitifully, they later formed the Association of Former Police of the City of Boston), but the labor movement itself was dealt a crushing public relations blow. Unions were now viewed as “dangerous” and “un-American.” Following in the wake of the Russian Revolution, 1919 turned out to be a disastrous year for organized labor.

But “dangerous” or not, according to Philip S. Foner’s History of the Labor Movement in the United States, these police had an abundance of legitimate grievances, beginning with their paychecks. In the six years prior to the strike, inflation had been spiraling upwards. Yet, even with the cost of living having risen a whopping 76-percent, Boston police wages during that same period had increased by only 18-percent.

Moreover, besides resenting having to cough up that $250 for their own uniforms and equipment (Boston police earned only $1100 annually), when these guys began comparing their base wages to those of other workers, they became further demoralized….and enraged.

Not only were they making less than half as much as skilled craftsmen (cabinet makers, millwrights, electricians, etc.), they were making 50 cents a day less than streetcar conductors, and a third less than municipal laborers, which is to say that even city street-sweepers were making more money than Boston’s finest. Clearly, a strike made eminent sense. Only in hindsight was it seen to be a monumental mistake.

A couple of notable things occurred in its aftermath. Predictably, Calvin Coolidge’s career took off like a rocket. In the eyes of the public, beating down these subversive policemen—preventing the Bolsheviks from gaining a foothold—made him a national hero. In 1920, Coolidge won the Republican vice-presidential nomination, and after Harding died in office (in 1923), became the thirtieth president, an ascendancy largely traceable to the police strike.

Also, in a desperate attempt at damage control, Gompers stunned everyone by immediately revoking the charter of every police force in the country affiliated with his Federation. Almost overnight, the number of police departments belonging to the AFL dropped from 36 to zero. The strike was toxic. There would be no serious attempts to organize police officers for almost two decades, not until WWII.


A state public sector union’s right to collective bargaining is controlled at the state level (federal employees fall under federal law), with the state legislature having the authority to say yea or nay. Ironically, Wisconsin, the first state to grant its public sector employees the right to collective bargaining (in 1959), rescinded that same right, in 2011, led by a reactionary Republican governor (the Alfred E. Neumanesque, Scott Walker) and his state assembly minions.

Still, beginning in the early 1960s, many states passed laws, or limited versions of them, permitting public employees to engage in collective bargaining. Understandably, for reasons of safety and public welfare, the police and fire departments are prohibited from going on strike. New York, with its “Taylor Law,” goes even further, making it illegal for any public employees to engage in work stoppages.

Of course, for the police, being told that work stoppages were illegal wasn’t going to end the conversation, not when there were grievances left to settle. Laws prohibiting them from striking were what led to the “blue flu,” where policemen fail to show up for work, claiming to be sick. When it comes to believing that they, and they alone, know what needs to be done, the police can be incredibly arrogant, clinging to the view that, for the “American way of life” to flourish, police interests must supersede public interests.

But as nutty as that view is, it has little to do with labor unions. In fact, people who believe that the main problem with America’s police unions is that these cops simply possess too much old-fashioned “union solidarity” are badly misinterpreting the facts. Cops may be lots of things—many of them honorable—but solid rank-and-file union brothers ain’t one of them.

As to why police unions are perceived so negatively, there are several reasons. For one, unions in general—all unions, not just the police—are not nearly as respected or valued as they once were. That’s partly the result of a change in American socio-economics, and partly the result of a well-coordinated smear campaign conducted by free market fundamentalists who’ve been dining out on labor’s vulnerabilities for 30 years.

For another, people don’t see the police as the same dedicated union members that, say, longshoremen, steelworkers and autoworkers are. The police don’t fit the mold. Besides the obvious differences in the jobs they perform, cops are notoriously uncooperative when it comes to supporting other unions.

For another, people may still recall that off-duty policemen were routinely hired by management as “goon squads,” paid to break up picket lines and bust the heads of union organizers. And for people with well-honed labor sensibilities and good memories, the chasm between yesterday’s goon squads and today’s “union brothers” is simply too wide to bridge.

And then there’s that mother of all contradictions. Even though it’s we taxpayers who pay their salaries and benefits, the police treat us with contempt, if not downright hostility. You see it in their willingness to regiment and bully us, and you see it in their nasty habit of shooting first and asking questions later (particularly when the target is an African-American male).

Largely traceable to the rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, when orchestrated protests and demonstrations began spilling into America’s streets, big-city police departments have been increasingly perceived as racist, reactionary, and having assumed the hated role of an “occupational force” in low-income, non-white neighborhoods.

But as accurate as that perception may be, it raises a question: How would these same cops behave if they didn’t belong to a union? Would that change anything? Do we honestly believe that if these guys weren’t union members, they would be less racist, less arrogant, less violent, less obnoxious, more compassionate, and more enlightened?

One clue to answering that is provided by newsreel footage from the 1950s and 1960s—footage showing policemen in the Deep South beating and kicking peaceful civil rights demonstrators, turning their attack dogs on passive, non-resisting African-Americans, and spraying male and female protesters with high-pressure water hoses.

None of those cops—not a single one—were union members. However, some of them were, in fact, members of another “collective”: the Ku Klux Klan. If you think organized labor is ideologically impacted, try the Klan. Although people tend to think of the KKK as being exclusively anti-black, it’s worth noting that, in addition to African-Americans, Jews, Catholics and anarchists, the post-Reconstruction version of the Klan (the “Second Klan”) also denounced unions.

Which is not to say unions are without fault. Far from it. Labor cannot deny that it has a spotty record when it comes to social issues such as race, sexism, the environment, and immigration. Not to make excuses, but that spotty record can be attributed to a profoundly one-dimensional view of the world. Rightly or wrongly, given how bloody those early “wage and hour” battles were, labor’s focus has pretty much been confined to economics.

A glaring example of that is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. This law banned Chinese immigration to the U.S. for fear Chinese workers would lower the standard of living and destroy whatever leverage the unions had, and was heartily endorsed by the Knights of Labor, which was then considered a fairly progressive organization. The only union to oppose the Exclusion Act was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), in 1905.

Another troubling aspect of municipal police departments, unrelated to unionism, is their growing militarization. It seems that every police force in the country now wants to be regarded as a technological super-power, with its own exotic equipment (helmet-mounted radar, anyone?) and menacing SWAT team. Basically, it derives from watching too much television.

If we were to list the declension, it might go something like this: Parking lot attendants fantasize about being security guards; security guards fantasize about being cops; cops fantasize about being FBI agents; FBI agents fantasize about being CIA operatives; and CIA operatives fantasize about being Jason Stratham.

As for the internal workings of municipal police unions, they resemble those of any other big-time union, which is to say police unions are going to represent all dues-paying members, no matter what the charge. Patrick Lynch, current president of the PBA, is going to represent any policeman under his jurisdiction who’s been accused of committing a violation, which is exactly what he’s supposed to do. In fact, if he isn’t willing to do that, he should resign.


One difficulty people have with decoding unions is failing to appreciate the distinction between “representing” and “defending” a union member. That’s a critical distinction. While an employee caught stealing is entitled to being “represented” by his union (i.e., to hear his side, make sure the facts are accurate, see that the punishment suits the crime, etc.), he isn’t entitled to being “defended.” How does one “defend” a thief?

Similarly, people fail to recognize the distinction between “snitching” and “whistle-blowing.” Obviously, because not all jobs and professions are equal in responsibility and gravitas, the stakes involved in each (the potential damage, the ramifications, the public trust) are going to vary greatly.

Consider: Wouldn’t every one of us hope that a priest would report a fellow priest who was known to be sexually molesting children? And wouldn’t we all hope a school teacher would report a fellow teacher for committing the same crime—or that a conscientious police officer would report a fellow officer’s deliberate falsification of a brutality or shooting report?

This is where policemen not only fail the litmus test, but deliberately bend the meaning and purpose of labor unions to suit their own needs. In no way does being a “good union brother” require a cop to protect a fellow cop who shoots an unarmed man—shoots him, denies it, lies about it, and then demands that his colleagues lie to protect him.

One would hope that, with the stakes being this high (Doesn’t the Social Contract itself come into play here?), if the police had any professional pride, they would insist on reporting this shooter, lest his actions reflect negatively on the whole department. And not to state the obvious, but in many cases what these “D&D” (deaf and dumb) officers are concealing isn’t just “bad form,” it’s a criminal offense.

Now consider factory work, where the stakes are infinitely lower. The forklift driver who goes to the boss and reports a fellow employee’s laziness or shoddy work isn’t engaging in whistle-blowing. He’s tattling. If it occurred in a non-union shop, the person doing it would be seen merely as an asshole, but if it occurred in a union shop, he would be seen as both an asshole and a snitch, which raises the sperm count considerably.

When I was president of an industrial union, I had a clear understanding of the membership’s opinion of snitching to management. In a word, they abhorred it. The following is a true account of something that happened in the mid-1990s.

The company’s HR rep approached me and said they’d found evidence of theft in the warehouse. Someone had been breaking into cases of product and stealing coupons. Using the argument that we (union and management) were “on the same team,” she asked that we “put out our feelers,” learn who the culprit was, and then identify him so he could be properly punished. I was stunned. I not only flatly refused, I was mildly insulted at even being asked.

Besides it not being our job to serve as a “citizen posse” (after all, they had their own security guards patrolling the place), pilferage occurred so infrequently in the facility, it didn’t even move the needle. Basically, employee theft was a non-issue. But persuading the union to act as informants would have been a huge issue, elevating a relatively picayune event to the level of Def-Con 4. Not surprisingly, the HR rep didn’t get it; she took my flat refusal as an act of childish defiance.

There was another wrinkle here. The union already knew who the culprit was. Which shouldn’t have come as any surprise, given that, sooner or later, we found out everything. The thief was a graveyard checker named “Fred.” A trucker had seen him stealing the coupons, had told a trusted friend about it, and the friend, thinking the union president would want to know, came and told me.

We chose to handle it in accordance with our own code. We may not have had all the bells and whistles of other unions, but we had a code. A steward left an anonymous note for Fred saying he’d been seen stealing coupons, that the company was on to him, and that if he valued his job, he needed to stop. If our warning kept him from stealing, it meant we had done right; if he got caught stealing in the future, then to hell with him, he deserved to be fired.


Back to the police union. One of the more obnoxious traits of policemen is their exaggerated, almost paranoid “Us vs. Them” mentality. For unionized cops, in that corner of the brain where a sense of union brotherhood is supposed to be implanted, there resides, instead, an almost pathological sense of institutional clannishness, one that all too easily leads to mindless, follow-the-leader conformity and sense of entitlement.

And it’s that suffocating clannishness that drives them. Policemen see themselves as “special” not by virtue of being union members but by virtue of being policemen. The Thin Blue Line and all that. The Thin Blue Line that supposedly serves as a boundary between civilization and the jungle. Again, this has little to do with unionism, and everything to do with cop-ism.

As for compensation, big city police officers today—unlike those Boston patrolmen in 1919—no longer have to worry about being “poor.” It was reported in the Los Angeles Times (1-11-15) that LAPD officers (who, at the time of the article, were involved in contract negotiations), make decent, middle-class wages.

New-hires get $57,420, graduates straight out of the academy get $60,500, and with longevity pay and bonuses, a veteran patrolman can earn as much as $100,000. Upscale districts pay even more. The starting salary of a patrolman in swanky Beverly Hills is $68,400.

Here’s the way union leaders and labor writers see this whole thing. Because the majority of police officers (not unlike the professional baseball players union) regard themselves and their organization as vastly different from, and therefore superior to workaday unions, they are never going to be a meaningful part of the American labor movement.

That’s because they are never going to have a significant role in it. The police are not joiners, they’re not boosters, and they’re not supporters. They’re not even disinterested observers. In truth, most unionized policemen in the U.S. don’t give one infinitesimal shit about the welfare of other unions.

Consider: If the police were to see a group of UAW members in the street, marching in protest, their first impulse would be to beat these protesters with sticks rather than allow them to pass without incident. Despite being union members themselves, these police officers’ first thought would be to punish the marchers. And therein lies the paradox.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at