Iron Bars on the House of Labour

An overlay of two images. The CUPE Ontario Flag with a grouping of cops marching

How accepting surveillance officers and other parts of the repressive state into trade unions is a threat to organizers across so-called Canada...

With everything happening in the Canadian Labour Movement™ these days—from Jerry Dias’ UNIFOR supporting anti-black racism and sexual violence inside UNITE HERE 75 to the social democrats getting all too fired up about a predictable and pathetic NDP Convention—there seems to be a major story that isn’t getting a lot of focus or press. The Canadian Union of Public Employees has unionized RCMP telecom operators and intercept monitor analysts, this following a January 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling which overturned legislation barring regular and civilian RCMP members from forming a union as unconstitutional to the colonial state.

Now, CUPE isn’t the first Canadian union to jump on board with unionizing members of the repressive state apparatus. OPSEU, for instance, shares in normalizing police unionization with their unionization of university campus cops, correctional officers, and more. However, with members of the RCMP nominally being considered “members of the CUPE family” by people like CUPE’s National President Mark Hancock, we have to assess and review the threat posed by these new CUPE members to affiliated organizers, using what impact they have in the United States-as-an-example, and understand why acts like these by CUPE and other Canadian trade unions represent a dangerous normalization of repressive state forces in the so-called House of Labour.

Spies in the “Family”

As Julia Wallace, a member of the African American caucus of SEIU Local 721 in Los Angeles, once declared “[c]ops are not workers, so we need to kick them out of our unions. [...] If we have to go on strike, the police would play the role to defend the bosses and capital and not the workers. They would arrest us, not join the picket lines”. And, just as the guys in riot gear aren’t aligned with the working class, so too aren’t those who run their infrastructure and serve as analysts to their operations. And this isn’t just me talking here, here’s what the Canadian State describes as the role of the ‘police operations support group’ that both positions fall under:

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The Police Operations Support Group includes only those positions that have, as their primary purpose, responsibility for one or more of the following activities:
  • planning, developing, conducting or managing telecommunications operations in support of police operations;
  • planning, developing, conducting or managing lawfully authorized telecommunications interceptions in support of police operations.

These roles clearly and directly support surveillance of social movements that Canadian Labour™ claims to be part of. Having worked on university campuses where campus police attempt to force their way into localized labour spaces, conflict immediately arises as campus police serve to attack campus organizers, protect strike breaking efforts, and assist in defending the campus status quo. These attempts to infiltrate labour spaces on campus is often resisted by uncompromising organizers, but not always. Those that fail to, in spite of the threat that law enforcement poses, usually frame their weak-willed decision in the legitimization of campus police in the labour movement.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that the RCMP was created in large part to control indigenous populations across the northwest, either in our relations with settlers or to exact colonial domination as Alvin Hamilton & Murray Sinclair illustrate in a detailed historical review. From mass violence against indigenous populations to (as their own members admit) serving as “enforcers” to the Residential School system to violence against my own people at Esgenoopetitj or Elsipogtog, the RCMP has been a constant tool of violence. So, it can be no surprise that they have been caught in surveillance of indigenous activists defending the land and waters of Turtle Island over, and over, and over again in the past ten years.

And they’ve done the same recently to Black Lives Matter organizers in Vancouver (and surely beyond). The RCMP and other state security forces’ actions during and before Toronto’s G20 Summit surely involved the same positions and people that CUPE now welcomes. How can indigenous and black organizers trust CUPE if members of the RCMP take positions and hold space within the union? How can CUPE be trusted to even do the bare minimum that is expected of the labour movement to stand with people in struggle if they considers those who assist in surveilling those involved in struggle to be part of their ‘family’?

And let’s move beyond surveillance here. The RCMP is no different than any other police force across this so-called country known for their anti-black and anti-indigenous racism. One only needs to look to the Canadian State’s treatment of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women to find evidence of the RCMP’s victim blaming, lies, and direct exacting of violence. For a recent, singular example, we can look to treatment of Haitian asylum seekers earlier this year, where attempts were made by the RCMP to block access to legal counsel provided by Black Lives Matter Toronto. The RCMP has an undeniable history of violence towards marginalized communities that echoes from its founding as a colonial device of repression and violence through to today. And yet, CUPE is more than willing to open the arms of its’ “family” to that violence. And, every time groups like this are let in, the path for other parts of the repressive state becomes a little more open.

Legitimized Violence in the Labour Movement

While police associations are generally prevented from joining trade unions and the Canadian Labour Congress thus far—unlike these other parts of the RCMP that CUPE has unionized—they and their accepted compatriots in state repression still act as obstructions to justice. For example, as Toronto’s policing budget peaked over a billion dollars in 2016, TPS waged a public campaign to maintain this amount following a report to make sizable cuts ($100 million dollars).

Mind you, policing is the only area of major service in Toronto which was untouched and constantly given more by the City while social services withered. The same can still be said for Toronto even with then-proposed cuts, as reports from the Toronto Star show. While the TPA wages this self-serving, continuing campaign, their members continue their long history of anti-black racism (from 1911 to the Yonge Street Uprising to the deaths of Andrew Loku, Dafonte Miller, and so many more), queerphobic HIV stigma, and their own history of anti-indigenous violence that continues today.

Meanwhile, in Lindsay, Ontario, correctional officers represented by OPSEU Local 368 walked off the job on 20 February 2018 under the guise of protesting their working conditions, but really with the concern against government mandated decreases to the time one can ‘segregate’ prisoners—reduced from 30 to 15 days in October 2017—and to encourage the use of harsher measures against prisoners. Now, trade unions wouldn’t take the step that an industrial union would towards actually organizing prisoners, but it’s a common practice among many locals to take stances that are pro-prison abolition.

Across the United States, we can see what happens when police unionization becomes normalized and some of the above explored tensions are made even clearer—even in the corporate press. As noted by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, in a furthering of trends found in Toronto, one of the biggest critics of Colin Kaepernick’s stance against anti-black racism and police brutality were, of course, police associations and unions. In San Francisco, they attacked his character while in Santa Clara they threatened to remove their services during 49ers games. As Surowiecki states:

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...police unions have defined working conditions in the broadest possible terms. This position has made it hard to investigate misconduct claims, and to get rid of officers who break the rules.

And it’s clear that public dissent to this status quo will be met with an echoing and strong response from cops hiding within the labour movement.

In some cases, police unions have even used attempted reforms raised in the wake of anti-black violence in discrimination as a crutch on which to demand even more from broader society. As noted in the Huffington Post, Daniel Hils, a local president of Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police, attempted to turn requests for body cameras and related measures into more money and compensation for officers in spite of how this would pose an obvious insult to victims of their violence.

Now, while some writers in the United States will argue for greater working class unity with the cops (see: Hamilton Nolan or Michelle Chen), I’d side with Shawn Gude who counters this in Jacobin stating that:

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...corralling [police unions] into the labor federation would lend them a legitimacy that they both don’t deserve and would be injurious to social movement unionism. Termites of the labor movement, more influence for police unions would threaten the very foundation of progressive unionism. The most spick-and-span cop union still takes as its mission the advancement of police and policing as an institution.

Similarly, UAW Local 2865, in their statement to the AFL-CIO furthers this notion, stating that

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...their “unionization” allows police to masquerade as members of the working-class and obfuscates their role in enforcing racism, capitalism, colonialism, and the oppression of the working-class.

And, if we looks to the examples and documentation noted above, we can see this obfuscation in practice in the American and Canadian contexts.

What Side Are You On, Labour?

So, in our first section, we established the threat posed by operators of the state that have been welcomed into the CUPE ‘family’ to social movements. And, in our second section, we walked through Canadian and American examples of the dangers posed by police and related forces’ actions-under-the-guise of labour. Within CUPE and OPSEU, among other unions, we cannot ignore the costs that police and related state-repression ‘unions’ already exact on social movements and our own security. We have to ask ourselves, what’s more important? A few more member dues for our coffers or the security and vibrancy of social movements?

With this question in mind, don’t forget that police are no friends to working class organizing when the chips are down. From the police violence that led to the Haymarket Massacre to Winnipeg General Strike to the repression of union and left organizing under the Canadian Criminal Code and in so many more incidents, there has been a long history of police violence against labour organizing directly across Turtle Island. Members of the Canadian trade union movement didn’t forget this history when folks opposed the implementation of Bill C-51 which would have increased the powers of those CUPE now welcomes. Moreover, it was only late last year that the offices of Australian Workers’ Union were raided due to “allegations that the union gave financial support to a progressive community group ‘Get Up’ along with political candidates more than a decade ago”. Our political will as part of the working class will always repressed by the State, be it for our own organizing or in supporting our communities. You might feel, as President Hancock does, that we can have cops and related folks in the ‘family’, but if the State’s interest opposes ours… we know who they’ll choose.

Be it cops or prison guards or the people who upkeep the surveillance state, the fact of the matter is that the working class is (or should be) diametrically opposed to exploitation and working towards true justice. As an indigenous organizer, protecting those who uphold our peoples’ and others repression while allowing them to “masquerade as members of the working-class” is an unparalleled threat. Rank and file members of unions, be they trade or otherwise, have to oppose the increasing normalization of the repressive state within Canada's 'House of Labour'.

If union folks want to have any claim to being with broader movements or to having any trust at all, then there is only one way forward—to fight for unions that resist rather than protect the State and their hatchetmen. Otherwise, who can trust you to have their back? It’s really that simple: us or them—what will you choose and what kind of movement are you building?

O. Berkman is an indigenous anarchist writer on topics of history and currently anti-fascism located in shared territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe (so-called Southern Ontario, Canada). For their paid work, O.B. is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees They write about other stuff too, but we’ll include that here as we go.