Cop Unions

Recently, much attention has been paid to cops behaving the way cops often behave: killing blacks, harassing blacks, abusing blacks, and so on. One line of commentary on this newfound interest in long-standing cop abuse is that this abuse is the fault of (or cannot be stopped because of) police unions. While I have no particular interest in police unions per se, I must say that I find this a rather laughable simplification.

For starters, police are unionized basically everywhere in the world. Canada has police unions. The United Kingdom has police unions. Australia has police unions. The Nordics (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland) all have police unions, which are then further organized into a broader Nordic police union federation (Nordiska Polisförbundet), which itself is further organized into the broader European police union federation (EuroCOP).

Despite this rampant police unionization all over the world, you don’t see police abuse on anywhere near the scale you see in the US. Why might that be? I speculate that it’s because the issue is really something else entirely, perhaps unique levels of sadism, racism, urban soldier nutcase mentalities, and a political society that is, in fact, heavily supportive of police abuse directed at non-whites.

There is something almost precious about the idea that if you erase the explicit organizational form of the union, while holding everything else in place, you’d see some sort of noticeable improvement. The police unions, I am going to suggest, reflect very well the id and interests of their members. The Blue Wall of Silence is a behavioral code bubbling out of cops themselves, not imposed on them from the police union bosses. The racism and paranoia of cops are also not being imposed on them by the union chiefs. The cancer among the police emanates organically from the police officers themselves and the self-perpetuating norms and codes they seem generally to subscribe to.

The person fingering police unions may admit all this, but insist that police unions are at least marginally the issue because they make it to where you can’t get rid of the bad cops. But this supposes that sans union there is actually interest in doing any such thing. Police management (from the chief on down) are themselves sourced almost entirely from the Blue Brotherhood. There is no reason to believe that they are especially different from rank-and-file police in their beliefs concerning appropriate behavior and such. I find it hard to believe therefore that changing the organizational form of labor relations is going to increase day-to-day scrutiny of police behavior.

Of course, the police management is in some way answerable to elected governments, and so maybe through that channel pressure could be placed on them in the unionless world to fight the cop cancer. But the problem here is, as I mentioned above, there is little reason to believe that the public at large is interested in rooting out police abuse towards blacks. Every time one of these big stories hit, you see this in pretty significant degree. The whites (especially conservative whites) come out in big time support of police.

The nature of police unions in the US is much more an effect of the way police and policing in the US are than it is the cause of those things. That doesn’t mean that you may not want to battle them in some way. It just means that doing so won’t get you nearly as far as some seem to think.

“Force” arguments continue to be the rhetorical backwater of idiots

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a post about Erick Erickson saying what conservatives in general believe about low-income workers. Here is Erickson, version one:

“What’s going on here — by the way, more than 90% of Americans make more than minimum wage. The minimum wage is mostly people who have failed at life, and high school kids. I don’t mean to be ugly with you people, but…If you’re a thirty-something-year-old person, and you’re making minimum wage, you’ve probably failed at life. It is not that life has dealt you a bad hand. Life does not deal you cards. It is that you’ve failed at life.”

In respectable circles, conservatives can usually keep their discipline together and ensure that they only heap disdain on the lazy, non-working poor. But sometimes they slip up and tell you what they really think. It’s not idleness that they think makes you a garbage failure of a person. Working a hard job preparing food for people to eat, a rather important social function, does not save you from their scorn. All low-income people, whether they are working or not, are regarded as inferior trash people.

It turns out that saying food service workers who are trying to pull down some of that sacred market income are categorical failures at life is generally regarded as quite heinous. So Erickson, version two, was forced to pretend that this is not what he meant:

“If you are working your tail off and doing the best you can and, perhaps you have to rely on family, friends, charity, or government to get by, as I said on Rush’s show, that’s not failing. That’s working. And work is rewarding. But if you are in your thirties, making minimum wage in a career, and standing on the street demanding the government do something about it, yes, yes you have failed at life…In fact, the people most upset with me missed the part about me specifically saying more than once that I was referring to 30 year old minimum wage workers who are blocking traffic demanding the government force their employers to pay them more. Those people have failed at life.”

For starters, surely nobody believes Erickson had any such distinction in his mind initially. The first quote is unmistakably clear. By the time people are 30, they should have gotten into a better job than food service. If they haven’t, that means they are failures. They are not failures because they are protesting. They are failures because they are not doing as well economically as they should be.

But have no fear, bullshit arguments about “force” are here. As is evident with the libertarians (who are the most intoxicated by such stupidity), this is always the great fallback of anyone who has nothing smart to say.

However, in the case of fast food worker protests, nobody is “demanding the government force their employers to pay them more,” not in any meaningful sense of the word.

If you (correctly) interpret the protesters’ actions as a way of bargaining with their employer for a raise, then there is no demand for government force. Whether it’s through a union contract or individual employment contracts, the employers will ultimately have to decide whether to agree to the workers’ demands or not. There is no law that would ever force them to do so.

Even if you (incorrectly) interpret the protesters’ actions as a way of trying to get the government to increase the minimum wage, there is still no demand that the government force their employers to pay more. As the right-wing is usually pretty eager to point out, payment of the minimum wage is voluntary insofar as employers don’t have to employ anyone if they don’t want to. There are no laws requiring businesses to hire people. They choose to do so.

In this sense, the minimum wage has always struck me as something that conservatives, in theory, should be pretty receptive to. It doesn’t violate just deserts. It pushes money through the holiest of income distribution channels, the paycheck. It’s totally voluntary: if employers don’t want to pay it, they sure as hell don’t have to. But those are considerations that only really matter to conservatives in theory. In reality, anti-poor animus of the sort typified in Erickson version one motivates the right-wing angst towards fast food workers, with “force” and other considerations just a rhetorical sheen placed on otherwise unconscionable views.

Labor’s paycheck fetishism

Via Mike Elk, I came upon this article in Labor Notes about Piketty. It is written in that affected homespun style that a lot of Labor writing is, and, also like a lot of Labor writing, flippantly dismisses as inferior anti-inequality strategies that don’t involve organizing to cram more money through people’s paychecks:

When workers bargain collectively, they can affect the distribution of wealth at its source. That’s more effective than attempting to recoup what they’re entitled to once it’s already in the boss’s pocket and out the door.

This is an empirical claim and it’s not correct. The American labor movement suffers from a serious lack of imagination about how to go after the boss or capital more generally. This serious lack of imagination has them fetishizing the paycheck as the holy grail of income channels, which is a severe mistake.

With organization and some good fighting, you can push the needle on labor paychecks a considerable amount. That’s a good thing and worth doing, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near the level of equality that we should want to see.

Despite what the author says, taking money from the boss’s pocket once it’s “out the door” has a greater capacity to cut inequality. That is, taxing and transferring has the ability to reduce inequality much more than organizing for raises does. Both can push down inequality and both are worth doing, but, as an empirical matter, the former has more potency.

Elsewhere in the world, Labor seems to be aware of this. If you delve into the countries that have the highest union membership and coverage rates in the world, you see their unions being extremely serious and proactive about getting the state to put in place equalizing tax-and-transfer schemes as well as public benefit systems. This overall approach to fighting capital and the rich is massively more effective than solely containing the fight to workplace scrapping.

Sloganeering labor movement people who act like everything is basically silly and irrelevant compared to local organizing to push up paychecks are wrong on the merits and doing a disservice to the populations labor is supposed to fight for. The labor movement should be using every channel of power to get more for the bottom of the economic hierarchy, and it can’t do that when it fetishizes workplace-to-workplace agitating to the exclusion of all other strategies.