Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. We've been talking about labor union organizing, and I want to shift now to draw attention to a rift in the labor movement, police unions. Some want to push police out of labor unions because police unions commonly obstruct accountability, but others argue that law enforcement officers deserve the labor protections of unions and actually want to use collective bargaining to create blueprints for change. Joining me now is John Paul Smith. He is a legislative representative with the United Steelworkers, and a former law enforcement officer. John Paul, welcome to the takeaway.
John Paul Smith: Thank you, Melissa. How are you?
Melissa: I'm doing great. First of all, talk to me as a former law enforcement officer about how it lands with you when people make the argument that police unions should be broken up entirely.
John: Well, it's my personal opinion and also the stance of the AFL-CIO, as well as my union, that all workers deserve a union regardless of what their profession is, but also that the collective bargaining agreement should never be used as a shield for criminal activity. I have that same personal belief working as a police officer for a while, and also as a member of the labor movement. I've been involved with the labor movement for almost two decades, and I went into policing late in life, around 32 or so. I'd already been involved in the labor movement for about a dozen years by then.
I really brought those values with me and a lot of folks go into policing at a very young age, so they may not have that same commitment to the labor movement when they start. Part of it is just getting folks to really grasp what being part of the labor movement is.
Melissa: What drew you into law enforcement?
John: Well, to be honest, as a youth, I attempted to stay away from law enforcement a lot. Then I was working at a nuclear facility that was on the edge of shutting down but had seen a lot of things in law enforcement in our country that I just didn't agree with personally and particularly was motivated after I saw the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police to do something about it myself.
I was raised with values, let's not talk about it, let's do something about it. I chose to do something about it and filled out all the paperwork and put in the application and went to the academy and became a police officer to police the way I envisioned policing should be done in our country and did that for five or six years and came back to the labor movement with an opportunity here in the legislative office with steelworkers in Washington.
Melissa: Given that you'd already had professional working experience, that you already had these union values, these get her done values that you just talked about, when you were in law enforcement and even now, do you see problems with the current way that police unions deal with issues of police brutality?
John: I would say I see problems with the way some police unions deal with overuses of force and the way they communicate with the public. It's very localized. Police unions, a lot of people don't realize that all of-- there's 13 affiliates in the AFL-CIO that represent police officers along with the service employees international union, and the Teamsters, and that made up our coalition, but there's also individual bargaining units within policing that are under umbrellas of other organizations. It's not a national network.
Part of what we've tried to do is to bring folks together to the table to really talk about some of these tough issues that we're dealing with and make sure that one, the profession is upheld, that the people who are doing the job correctly every day are recognized, and two, that the folks who maybe should not be doing the job at all are held accountable and we go forward to make our country a little better.
Melissa: All right, John Paul, talk to me about what the blueprint for change is.
John: Last summer after we saw the outcry from the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, formed a racial justice task force. That task force divided the work up into a few subcommittees and one of those was on police. We noticed, while we were doing this work, and I should've mentioned that the lead staff for that committee and we noticed while we were doing this work that one of the voices from the table was missing and that was of unionized police officers, the people on the front lines doing this work every day.
We hear from mayors, we hear from police chiefs, we hear from lots of folks, we hear from community activists, we hear from the media, but we weren't hearing from the people doing the work. We put this network together to let unionized police officers have a voice and driving for reforms, not excuses.
Melissa: I appreciate that. I've spent a fair number of years doing various kinds of journalism and media, and I've consistently wanted to talk with officers who are currently working, and I am never able to. I can talk with former officers, but current law enforcement are typically barred or banned or simply highly reluctant to speak with media. Is that a union problem?
John: I don't even know that it's a union problem. I think it's just a culture of our country, but we're trying to change it. That's one of the things we're trying to do is change. When our blueprint came out, CNN actually did an article on the blueprint, and a current law enforcement officer who was part of our group spoke to them. I'm happy to connect you with some of these folks too.
Melissa: Is there a way that unions themselves, in the collective bargaining work that they do, actually work in ways to create more accountability for police and greater trust in communities?
John: We think so. Part of our blueprint for change is a program called the Union Law Enforcement Accountability and Duty Standards or U-LEADS, because everyone loves a good acronym. Part of that program is peer accountability and we have a roadmap for this and other industries but want to bring that culture change to law enforcement. Part of bargaining is you bargain with employers to get time to do the training for this stuff so that we can institute this program amongst our members.
Melissa: That culture that you talk about is often held up as one of the biggest challenges. In the case of the murder of George Floyd, undoubtedly, it felt as though there was a culture there, that thin blue line culture, that culture of silence. Can that really be changed through union action?
John: Well, that's our goal. I don't think it's just a police union culture or a union culture. I think in my opinion, in my life experience, it's been an American culture that no one wants to be seen as the rat or the snitch, but we realized through the labor movement and unionized police officers that we only have two options. We either change our culture or we watch bargaining rights get legislated away, state by state and municipality by municipality.
Melissa: I think many of us are still shaken and so moved by what we saw from the testimony of the Capitol police officers, and yet some have also been critical saying that the unions haven't supported those police officers or those law enforcement officers in the way that we've seen, for example, in some other cases, where are the unions on what has happened with those Capitol police?
John: Well, first, I want to say that I watched that testimony and those were for true American heroes that defended our democracy on January 6th and want to give them the respect that is owed to them. Secondly, those two departments, I can't speak for those unions. They're not AFL-CIO affiliated, either the Capitol police or the DC Metro police unions. I can only speak for the work that we're doing within the AFL-CIO and our union to hold this profession up while also holding bad actors accountable.
Melissa: John Paul Smith, former law enforcement officer and legislative representative with the United Steelworkers. Thank you for having this tough conversation and joining us today.
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