Labor confronts police brutality

In Washington, D.C., national AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre marches June 8 with United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts in a union Black Lives Matter march contingent organized by the Painters Union.

By Don McIntosh

Nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and mistreatment of African-Americans have now continued non-stop for three weeks, including 21 straight days in Portland. Protesters have turned out in Salem, Eugene, and small towns throughout Oregon and Washington: Washougal, La Grande, Hermiston, Pendleton, Happy Valley, Prineville, Tualatin, Monmouth, Burns, Ontario, and Klamath Falls. Disgusted by the killing of of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, crowds of up to 400 protesters gathered in Dallas, Oregon; 800 in St. Helens; and 1,000 in Medford. And every day, police are giving people new examples of misconduct to protest: Police in riot gear have frequently acted like armed counter protesters, using indiscriminate force against peaceful demonstrators, while failing to prevent arson and looting or apprehend the perpetrators. Unions representing print and broadcast reporters have documented and denounced dozens of police assaults and arrests of clearly identified journalists covering the protests, including one who was permanently blinded in one eye, and two crews confronted during live national television broadcasts.

What’s been the labor movement’s reaction to all this? Locally, union members as individuals have taken part in the protests or joined morning-after volunteer parties to help clean up the aftermath.

“The cause of labor has always been the cause of human solidarity, human dignity and justice and equality for all,” said IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson in one of many national statements. “So the IBEW cannot afford to stay silent as our African-American brothers and sisters suffer in fear of violence at the hands of either the state or by private citizens like we saw with the case of Ahmaud Arbery. … This is the time for all those who love America and care deeply about its values to speak out in the name of justice and against systemic racism.”

Meanwhile, some unions have taken action — as unions.

Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) held an 8 minute 46 second work stoppage June 9 (the length of time a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck). That was followed by the announcement of an eight-hour work stoppage in 29 West Coast ports June 19 to demand an end to white supremacy and police terror.

Teachers unions in Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago,  Boston, Milwaukee, Madison, and Minneapolis have demanded the removal of police officers assigned to schools, with immediate success in some cases.

At the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., boards covering windows are painted with statements supporting criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter. The signs (and security guards) appeared after the AFL-CIO lobby was damaged May 31 by protesters who sprayed graffiti, broke windows, and set fires.

On June 4, the Oregon AFL-CIO general board approved a set of action steps aimed at rooting out racism internally inside the labor movement.

“We as progressive trade unionists have a responsibility to tackle any injustice, and that includes racial injustice,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor, who took part in a June 8 Black Lives Matter march that ended up occupying both sides of I-84. “We talk mostly about economic justice, but there’s no way to disconnect the struggle for racial justice and economic justice.”

Public support is overwhelming: A recent nationwide poll by the Washington Post found that 74% of Americans support the protests; 69% say Floyd’s killing represents a broader problem within law enforcement, and just 29% say the killing is an isolated incident.

IATSE Local 28 recording secretary Jay Spottswood and his wife Liz Spottswood—also a Local 28 member—have attended several of the George Floyd protests in their Northeast Portland neighborhood.

“It feels like something you can’t ignore,” Liz Spottswood told the Labor Press. “It’s a crime for us to ignore racial injustice any further.”

The Spottswoods say it’s personal for them: They once witnessed a squad car roll up and police jump out and tackle their neighbor’s 12-year-old son, pinning the terrified African-American boy to the ground face down as he cried for his mother. He was released after police determined he wasn’t the suspect they were looking for.

“I’m angry that we still have to keep doing this,” Jay Spottswood added.

Other IATSE Local 28 members have supported the demonstrations by sewing face masks that are then distributed to protesters.

Oregon Nurses Association has turned out as a union for several daytime Black Lives Matter protests at Pioneer Courthouse Square and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

And graduate student union members at OHSU, part of Oregon AFSCME, have been operating a medical supplies tent in downtown Portland for protesters injured in nightly attacks in which police use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons. On June 13, Oregon AFSCME reports, police came for them too, ordering them to disperse immediately and leave their supplies behind. While complying with that order, union member and med student Michael Martinez was arrested. When union volunteers returned to retrieve their supplies, they were gone.

“Police officers were the only people allowed anywhere near our tent and supplies, so the only explanation is that our medical supplies were stolen by the police,” said Adrian Baris, a graduate student in the OHSU School of Medicine. Members of Graduate Researchers United plan to continue providing aid for protesters, and are inviting community supporters to contact organizer Michelle Ozaki at ozakim@ohsu.edu.

At press time, IBEW Local 48 was also organizing a mask-mandatory union-focused Black Lives Matter rally outside the Northwest Oregon Labor Council headquarters, set for June 18.

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