Thursday, February 9, 2012

Defend Arizona Workers, Abolish the Police Unions

At times like these -- of austerity and broad attacks on workers, the poor and the excluded -- it must first be pointed out that the state revenue crisis is fake.  In Arizona, the justification for massive cuts and fee increases runs immediately up against the hard fact that while the right wing government is pleading poverty and cutting health and assistance programs for the poor, it is also busy slashing corporate taxes.  Famously, two out of three corporations in the Copper State pay no taxes and recurring proposals for a "flat tax" would shift the tax burden even further onto the poor and working class -- a group that already pays disproportionately more of their income than Arizona's rich.

It's in this context that a new series of anti-union bills have been introduced into the legislature.  Backed by the generally reactionary far right Goldwater Institute, these laws would remove basic rights of free association and self-defense from Arizona workers.  Among the deletions: automatic deductions and collective bargaining rights over pay and benefits.  And, unlike other states, such as Wisconsin, where similar legislation has been introduced, in Arizona police and fire departments are not excluded.  This comes in the context of an ongoing series of attacks on unions in Arizona.

In Arizona only six percent of workers are unionized, and this skews heavily towards public sector workers.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Arizona has one of the lowest percentage of unionized workers in the US, but even that small number is in decline, and last year many workers took the opportunity of the weakening of automatic deduction laws to leave unions that they felt had been poorly representing them, engaging in the classic 'dues strike'.  In Arizona, public sector unions have been increasingly seen by their members as functioning not to defend workers, but rather to manage the imposition of austerity in ways that don't rile up the rank and file.

And, of course, in any labor fight, conflicts with the police are never far off.  That's what makes these bills so interesting,  Given the important role of police as strikebreakers and the enforcers of capital's will, one tends to assume that almost certainly Arizona's right wing ideologues will have to pull a Wisconsin and create exceptions for the police and fire departments.  As we have recently seen in the case of Kyrsten Sinema's liberal candidacy for Congress, even so-called progressives in the state depend on the political support of the racist police unions.

Indeed, Synema recently accepted the endorsement of the worst police union in the state (although choosing is hard), the Professional Law Enforcement Association, famous for its vigorous advocacy for Arizona's anti-immigrant SB1070 law and unconscionable defense of Officer Richard Chrisman, who tortured, shot and killed unarmed Danny Rodriguez as well as his dog in his home on October 5, 2010.  Famously, PLEA President Mark Spencer not only helped bail Chrisman out with union funds, but also held a fund-raiser bbq for his defense.  But such it is with police unions.

Beyond that, if there is to be a fight that breaks out beyond the strict legislative boundaries enforced by the union bureaucracy and leadership, like perhaps a general strike, bosses and government officials will need the police to impose their class objectives.  Police, of course, are not just regular members of the working class.  They are paid to wage a never-ending war on poor people, folks of color in particular, and to maintain capitalist relations of property, wage labor and commodity production.

I've been reading Kristian Williams excellent book, "Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America" and he goes into quite a bit of depth about the history and reactionary tendencies of police unions that set them apart from and against other unions.  What strikes me as particularly relevant in the current situation is his analysis of the different ways that police union demands function versus the demands of other public sector workers.  Setting aside wage and benefit bargaining, the demands and lobbying of most public sector workers tends to involve benefits for the broader working class.  That is, teachers in the past have very often demand smaller class sizes, increased funding for free breakfast and lunch programs, and other social programs concomitant with their role.  For instance, the American Federation of Teachers in recent years joined the boycott of Arizona over SB1070.  These sorts of trends bear out amongst most other public sector unions.

However, this is not true when it comes to the police.  The results of police union bargaining tend much more strongly in the exact opposite direction.  Also, because of the often mutually beneficial relationship between police unions, the police bureaucracy, government and politicians, police negotiations and the lobbying that their organizations engage in tend to lead directly to increased budgets for weapons and equipment, expansion of police and jail facilities and other infrastructure to be used against the poor and marginalized populations.  So, while most public sector bargaining and lobbying can lead to increased services, police bargaining and lobbying leads to more murdered and imprisoned poor people, and the wrecked and ruined lives that go with it.  Beyond that, police union bureaucracy serves to protect cops from the consequences of their policing through its various internal discipline procedures.

So, if the legislature sticks to its ideology of right wing austerity and attacks on workers over the class pragmatism of privileging the police, there may be an opportunity to seriously weaken the police unions in Arizona, striking a blow for the working class and the poor and greatly opening up possibilities for further struggle.  To do this, workers will have to be brave enough to recognize their opposing interests to the police and to say, "Defend Arizona Workers, Abolish the Police Unions".

Lines will have to be drawn, but they won't be new lines.  In all likelihood this will mean contradicting the union bosses who will play, as is their habit, towards the racist, classist law and order line of safety and protection.  If we ever want to break out of this system of never-ending work, in which waged labor dominates our lives and we negotiate pitifully with the bosses for small glimpses of freedom and dignity, this will necessarily mean taking on the final defenders of work, the police.  Public sector workers may find it expedient in the short term to hide behind the boys in blue, but long term, given the fight that is coming, that strategy may come back to haunt them.

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