Unions react as the nation explodes in protest over George Floyd killing

At a May 31 protest in Washington DC against the police killing of George Floyd, some protesters painted graffiti and broke windows as they moved through the streets. At the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO, windows were smashed and a fire started in the lobby. It’s not clear that the vandals knew what the building was, as other nearby office buildings were similarly damaged. The fire was extinguished, and the lobby’s massive 1955 glass mosaic “Labor is Life” by celebrated muralist Lumen Winter was spared damage.

By Don McIntosh

Witness video of the slow-motion murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police May 25 provoked immediate horrified reactions worldwide, and led to days of protests and riots in dozens of American cities.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, half a dozen local unions issued statements calling for justice for George Floyd. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers called on the school district to cut ties with the police department, and asked members to wear black on June 1. The head of the Minneapolis police union fanned the flames, however, calling Floyd a violent criminal and promising the union would defend the four officers fired for his death, including the three who held him down and the fourth who asphyxiated him.

In New York City, when police commandeered city buses and loaded them with handcuffed protesters facing mass arrest, bus drivers refused to transport them, with the backing of their union, Transport Workers Local 100.

“TWU Local 100 bus operators do not work for the NYPD,” the union said in a May 29 statement. “We transport the working families of NYC. All TWU Operators should refuse to transport arrested protestors.”

As protests spread, many national unions issued statements, and so did the national AFL-CIO labor federation.

“Racism plays an insidious role in the daily lives of all working people of color,” declared national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka May 28. “This is a labor issue because it is a workplace issue. It is a community issue, and unions are the community.”

Trumka issued a longer statement June 1 after some protesters trashed the AFL-CIO headquarters lobby in Washington, D.C.:

“I watched the video of George Floyd pleading for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. No person of conscience can hear Floyd’s cries for help and not understand that something is deeply wrong in America. … We must and will continue to fight for reforms in policing and to address issues of racial and economic inequality.

“We categorically reject those on the fringes who are engaging in violence and destroying property. Attacks like the one on the AFL-CIO headquarters are senseless, disgraceful and only play into the hands of those who have oppressed workers of color for generations and detract from the peaceful, passionate protesters who are rightly bringing issues of racism to the forefront.

“But in the end, the labor movement is not a building. We are a living collection of working people who will never stop fighting for economic, social and racial justice. We are united unequivocally against the forces of hate who seek to divide this nation for their own personal and political gain at our expense.

“We will clean up the glass, sweep away the ashes and keep doing our part to bring a better day out of this hour of darkness and despair.”


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