Last week, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the nation’s largest union of public sector workers, kicked off its 45th annual convention in Philadelphia. By most accounts, it was a largely tame affair, padded with presentations on the union’s history and peppered with appearances from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. The bulk of the agenda was focused on the business of discussing and voting upon a series of resolutions on a variety of issues, and that’s where things got spicy. 

The convention brought together delegates from AFSCME locals around the country, and while it’s unsurprising that people representing such a wide range of identities, industries, political views, and personal experiences would find areas of disagreement, there was one resolution in particular that caused a considerable commotion: Resolution #26, which called on the union to demand that the AFL-CIO Executive Council suspend its affiliation with the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) and other law enforcement unions.

“I wanted people there to understand that this resolution or some variation of it will continue to be introduced at every convention until they either blacklist the discussion or approve it. Members are uncomfortable with the idea that it could be our AFSCME brothers (mostly) kettling and gassing us during a protest or picket line. And they should be!”

River, AFSCME Delegate

The resolution was composed and introduced by Cop-Free AFSCME, a group of rank-and-file AFSCME members that was founded in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. From the beginning, the group’s mandate was clear: to organize around the goal of booting cops out of the labor movement, specifically their corner of it. They had attempted to introduce a similar resolution at AFSCME’s 2020 convention, but were unable to secure a floor vote; the resolution was killed off in committee. This year, the resolutions committee recommended a “no” vote after a contentious discussion in which at least one speaker said the resolution “should have never seen the light of day,” but its sponsors did ultimately succeed in bringing the resolution to the floor. They weren’t expecting a win, especially after the resolution was saddled with a “no” recommendation. As one member who was present explained, most resolutions sail through with an automatic “yes,” but after being shot down so unceremoniously in 2020, even getting to the floor felt like a victory.

It didn’t go well. “They hated it,” a delegate and Cop-Free AFSCME member who’d stood and spoke in support of the resolution told me (she requested anonymity out of concern for her safety, so we’ll call her Krista). She estimated the split at around 80/20, with most of the voices shouting her down as she laid out the group’s reasoning behind the resolution. “It wasn’t unanimous by any means, and I think a lot of the loudness came from the fact that the cops and corrections officers, specifically, were very, very loud, but it was the vast majority of the room against it.”

Her speech was met with a chorus of boos. And, as she told me, every group that stood to speak in response did so in opposition; she found out later that a number of delegates had wanted to speak in support, but were not able to do so before the chairperson cut off discussion. “The room felt very, very hostile,” she explained, adding that she had felt the need to ask several friends to walk her back to her hotel afterwards—“just in case.” 

“People are very afraid to speak up about this,” Krista explained. “I’ve heard from numerous staffers within AFSCME [who] are basically just closeted about it. Even during the convention, a staffer came up to me and thanked me, and I gave them a pamphlet, then they kind of took it real quickly, like folded up. It’s ridiculous that that’s the atmosphere.”

“It was pretty immature and saddening the way that folks shouted down and booed a member just for introducing a resolution they didn’t agree with,” said another delegate, who had been waiting in line to speak in support but was not given the chance (they also requested anonymity, so we’ll call them River). “I wanted people there to understand that this resolution or some variation of it will continue to be introduced at every convention until they either blacklist the discussion or approve it. Members are uncomfortable with the idea that it could be our AFSCME brothers (mostly) kettling and gassing us during a protest or picket line. And they should be!”

The Cop-Free AFSCME resolution, by situating its demand on constitutional grounds, echoed the language of a 2020 resolution passed by the Writers Guild of America, East (which, full disclosure, I helped write and voted for). Article II of the AFL-CIO Constitution maintains that the federation shall protect the labor movement “from the undermining efforts of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, terrorism and all other forces that suppress individual liberties and freedom of association and oppose the basic principles of our democracy and of free and democratic unionism.” Law enforcement unions—with their well-documented acts of violence, oppression, misinformation, and terror against the working class, disregard for civil liberties, active repression of workers’ rights to assemble, and the preponderance of white supremacists and members of far-right militias and other hate groups within their ranks—present a clear and present danger

When the WGAE resolution was presented to the AFL-CIO in 2020, the executive council refused to take action, instead reaffirming its commitment to protecting police unions’ interests. The chilly response threw cold water on what was then a growing campaign among rank-and-file union members to frankly address what many of us saw—and continue to see—as a major issue afflicting the labor movement: police unions, and the life-or-death power they hold over the rest of us. 

In June 2020, the King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild, noting that the cop union failed to meet the council’s requirement for its members to be “actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large.”

Cop-Free AFSCME formed around the same time as SEIU Drop the Cops, a group within the Service Employees International Union that focused on expelling police from their own ranks, and No Cop Unions, a blanket coalition targeting the entire labor movement (full disclosure, I was also an active member of NCU during this period). Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Screen Actors Guild —American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) circulated petitions calling on the AFL-CIO to sever its affiliation with cops. In June 2020, the King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild, noting that the cop union failed to meet the council’s requirement for its members to be “actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large.” For a brief moment, much like the larger shift in public consciousness during the George Floyd uprisings that spurred nationwide calls for defunding the police, it felt like there was real momentum around the issue, but as new political crises continued to erupt and union leaders stalwartly refused to acknowledge members’ objections to sharing space with our own oppressors, the movement fell largely dormant. 

In 2021, though, after AFSCME released a statement celebrating National Police Week almost exactly one year after Floyd’s murder, Cop-Free AFSCME stirred back to life, and its members began planning for their next move. Over months of meetings, during which they honed their message and researched the convention process to increase the chances of their resolution making it to the floor, they prepared themselves for what they knew would be a losing but necessary battle. “We didn’t get any confirmation that it had been accepted as a resolution, so I was sort of worried that they would say, ‘Oh, it got lost in the mail,’ or something like that,” Krista told me. “We never expected the fight to end here, and we consider this a partial win, for the single reason that we actually got the resolution to the floor this year and every delegate had to see it.” 

When the resolution did come up, Krista told me she was caught by surprise. And as brutal as the reception to the resolution and her speech had been, she was thrilled that so many people came up to her afterwards to talk about it and to share contact information to keep organizing. It’s an encouraging development for those who wish to see police ejected from the labor movement, but we cannot hang all of our hopes on one group’s ability to pass one resolution; this is still just the beginning. Cop-Free AFSCME had made an impact, and forced a public conversation that many have long tried to avoid. “So, despite the boos, I’m invigorated, not demoralized, and we will never quit this fight. If they wanted to demoralize us—they failed,” she told me. And as one of her fellow delegates told me, “I guess we’ll see what happens at the next convention in Chicago 2024!”

AFSCME currently represents nearly 200,000 police and corrections officers.

And it will certainly be a hard fight. AFSCME currently represents nearly 200,000 police and corrections officers, and any union would understandably be loath to lose such a hefty chunk of its membership during a time of declining union density. That may be why the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) expressed such dismay when its Local 118, which represents ICE agents, began a process to legally separate from AFGE, prompting the union to file paperwork with the Federal Labor Relations Authority disclaiming interest in the unit. “It is clear that the AFGE Council 118 remains steadfast in their desire to no longer be a part of AFGE or the broader labor movement,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said in a statement. (Some might say good riddance, or note the apparent efficacy of making law enforcement feel unwelcome within the movement; one can safely assume that, while their own resolution focused specifically on police unions, Cop-Free AFSCME has been following the situation with great interest). 

There’s also the matter of a union’s ability to influence and curry favor within the Democratic party, whose leaders have spent the past two years screaming their heads off about how much they love cops and recoiling in horror at even the most modest proposals to rein in police power. In Krista’s estimation, the issue really comes down to power, over politics or even personal convictions. “But what is that power trying to accomplish?” she asked. “Is it the power of the working class? There are working-class elements within AFSCME but because of its structure as a business union, and because it represents cops and corrections and other elements, it is blunted. It’s become sort of a bureaucratic arm of the Democratic Party in some ways, without having that true working-class spirit that a lot of early 20th-century unions had. And I think that the way of getting back to that is by making it more of a working-class union again.”

Cop-Free AFSCME has a long and difficult road ahead of them, but if they do eventually get their way, they’ll be doing just that. As River told me, they’ve spoken to a number of workers who have resisted joining their union specifically because of labor leaders’ support for the police. Those people have felt abandoned by a movement built on the sacrifices of the Black and Brown workers, whose modern-day descendants continue to be terrorized and abused by union members in blue. Imagine how much stronger we could be if we brought those workers in, and cut down police unions’ power at the same time. Remember, the working class and the employer class have nothing in common—and a cop is just a boss with a gun.

Kim Kelly

Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL, a forthcoming book of intersectional labor history. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.