The leadership of some of New York's largest unions blasted unnamed office-holders for a "profound lack of leadership" when it came to addressing the "failure of the NYPD to act with appropriate restraint" during the mass street protests sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a since-fired Minneapolis police officer.
The impact of their June 6 letter was diluted, however, by their unwillingness to specify the targets of their criticism. Mayor de Blasio, who alternated between criticizing some individual cops and defending the overall police response, has long had the political support of several of the seven signatories, including District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido and SEIU1199 President George Gresham.
The others whose names were attached to the letter were SEIU 32BJ President Kyle Bragg, Professional Staff Congress President Barbara Bowen, New York State Nurses Association leader Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, United Auto Workers Region 9 Director Beverley Brakeman and Communications Workers of America District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor.
The unions represent close to one million workers split between the public and private sectors.
"As labor unions, we stand in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who have risen up to protest against state violence towards people of color, systemic racism, and police brutality," their letter stated. "We cannot and will not stand down as we witness daily the violent response of the NYPD without reprimand nor consequence."
They also lit into elected officials—without identifying them—for "their inability to propose and implement substantive reforms that promote real change. This lack of action combined with a lack of empathy, patience, and respect for protesters gathering to say Black Lives Matter is more than a series of missteps—it is a continued danger to New Yorkers for whom law enforcement's responsibility to 'protect and serve' is taken as a suggestion instead of a mandate."
'Must Shift Gears'
They referred, though not by name, to the Governor, the Mayor and Police Commissioner, who is actually a mayoral appointee rather than someone who is elected, saying that while President Trump "divides instead of leads," those officials should "shift gears immediately to demonstrate that we are different...
"As labor leaders, and as representatives of millions of New York's working people—Black, Brown and white—we continue to stand in solidarity with the protest movements against racist violence," the group stated. "The labor movement is one born out of protest. The same militarized police forces that are brutalizing people marching for racial justice today, have in the past been used against workers fighting for their rights."
After Mr. de Blasio ended the curfew a night early and bills aimed at police reform were approved by both houses of the State Legislature, some of the signatories claimed their letter was responsible for those actions. Mr. Gresham wrote in an email, "We're pleased with the Mayor's and Police Commissioner's commitments to devoting more resources to services for our youth in NYC, but there is still much more to be done."
Mr. Bragg called the repeal of a law shielding cops' disciplinary records from public scrutiny and the lifting of the curfew "a step in the right direction." And a top CWA official, Bob Master, said in a phone interview, "I think the letter hit at an important moment and contributed to a shifting sense in the city that the police had gone too far and that it was important for the protests and for the peaceful expressions of deep concerns about racism."
Historian: A Big Deal
Joshua Freeman, a Professor of Labor History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said he was struck by the way that the coalition rebuked the city and state's elected leadership, notwithstanding their reticence about naming names.
"It was a big deal," Mr. Freeman said during a June 10 phone interview. "Most notable was that they called out the Mayor and the Governor with whom some of these union officials are pretty closely aligned."
He added, "But it is not unprecedented. After Amadou Diallo, they [unions] were very much part of the protest movement, and a number of union leaders were arrested to protest what happened there," referring to the West African immigrant who was shot to death by four members of the NYPD's Street Crime Unit in 1999 after they mistook him for a rape suspect, firing 41 bullets at the unarmed man.
Historically, Mr. Freeman said the labor movement's civil-rights record has been "a complicated story."
"Going back to the 1960s, the union movement was not on the same page [with the civil rights movement]," he said. "You had a number of unions that very strongly supported the civil-rights movement. If you look back at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, there were unions signs all over while they that were reluctant. The AFL-CIO never endorsed the March on Washington, and there were some white unions that resisted integration and dug their heels in."
Didn't Criticize Cop Unions
Mr. Freeman observed that unlike in other parts of the country, where the broader union movement has publicly split with local police unions over the Floyd killing, the New York unions did not criticize their NYPD counterparts.
"The relationship between the police unions to the larger labor unions has been the subject of a lot of discussion, but almost all of it behind closed doors in recent years," he said. "It's notable that this discussion has broken into the open in a number of places, including in Seattle and Minneapolis. It is also notable that the union leaders protesting the Police Department's performance did not mention the police union. I don't think we are seeing that kind of open breach here in the labor movement."
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