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I’m a union guy, and I oppose police union contracts that cover up abuse

Only police unions have language that restricts criminal investigation and prosecution. Changing the scope of bargaining must be done through legislation.

Ayoka Mota Samuels cries as she records her cousin discussing a violent encounter with Chicago police at a press conference in Brickyard Mall on the West Side, June 4.
Ayoka Mota Samuels cries as she records her cousin discussing a violent encounter with Chicago police at a press conference in Brickyard Mall on the West Side, June 4.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, cities across the country have been forced to again take a hard look at police reform.

It has taken too long to get to this point, given the history of police abuse that has gone unpunished, in Chicago and across the country.

Now Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised sweeping police reforms, and that’s good to hear.

But a major obstacle stands in the way: The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the FOP. State lawmakers need to fix that.

I was a union member my entire working life and a local union president for over a decade. I’m a strong unionist, for sure.

I believe that a union contract, in addition to addressing the nuts-and-bolts of salary and benefits, must also reflect social values. And no labor contract should ever be used as a cover for police abuse and misconduct.

Unions are understandably concerned about extending legal prohibitions on matters that can be subjects of collective bargaining. For instance, the Chicago Teachers Union has objected to legislation that removed class sizes, which impact working conditions, from bargaining with the Chicago Public Schools.

But police unions are unique. Only police unions have language that restricts criminal investigation and prosecution.

That is not consistent with the union concept that I believe in.

I admit, and am ashamed, that the national leaders of organized labor have been too quiet, too reluctant to criticize police unions and the contract protections that are used to undermine prosecutions of abuse.

(As an aside: by their own choice, only a relatively few police union locals are affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The Chicago FOP is not a member of the Chicago Federation of Labor.)

Our union leaders must be more outspoken about the misuse of contracts to protect the criminal behavior of police officers.

As an example, the 2017 report by the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois went into great detail describing how the collective bargaining agreement between the FOP and the City of Chicago undermines the pursuit of justice and public safety.

The agreement “contains provisions that have the effect of impairing investigations of police misconduct,” says the DOJ report.

The City of Chicago and Mayor Lori Lightfoot should not be forced to bargain police reform with the target of the reforms.

By its very nature, contract bargaining is a process that requires compromise by both parties. The bargaining table is not the appropriate arena to accomplish the much-needed change in police conduct.

Those of us who have been involved in contract bargaining know that regardless of which side of the table you sit on, once something is in a collective bargaining agreement, it is very difficult to remove.

Changing the scope of bargaining in the city’s police contract must be done through legislation.

Lawmakers in Springfield have a responsibility here. Police reform requires the state to take action and remove from bargaining any provisions that involve protection of police misconduct.

State Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat from Champaign, has introduced a bill, HB 2112, which is a good start. The proposal would make it an act of misconduct to misrepresent facts about police actions, and states that law enforcement officers and prosecutors “have an affirmative obligation” to report any knowledge of such misrepresentation to police supervisors or others.

It is the role and the moral responsibility of organized labor and the labor movement to support all efforts to end police misconduct.

As labor and as workers, we must oppose the misuse of our hard-won bargaining rights as a cover for police abuse, like the abuse the world witnessed in the murder of George Floyd.

In the name of George Floyd.

Fred Klonsky is a retired teacher and former president of Illinois Education Association Local 64.