The killing of Eric Garner and the failure of social justice unionism

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Rather than providing a strategy for fighting racism, social justice unionism has led some union members to embrace the most racist institution in society for fear of alienating their co-workers.

The murder of Black people in the US by agents of the state has reached epidemic proportions. This epidemic has been an ongoing for hundreds of years, but white America and the mainstream media are finally sitting up and taking notice as Black people revolt against their brutal mistreatment.

In the latest incident, Eric Garner was suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island when a group of New York police accosted him, tackled him to the ground and choked him to death. His crime was not selling cigarettes but being a Black man in New York City, even in its “forgotten borough.” The New York police do not become less racist just because they cross the Verrazano Bridge.

The widespread revolt against the killing of Michael Brown and now Eric Garner does not need to be recounted here. The crisis created by this rebellion is so severe that even mainstream sources like Time Magazine are defending rioting as a legitimate form of protest. There is another question, though, of what role workplace organizing can play in not only building solidarity with this struggle but deepening the social conflict with industrial action. We should not expect Time to take on this question, but we might hope the labor movement would.

Among the broad Left in the official US labor movement, there is a growing alternative strategy called social justice unionism. This strategy sees limitations in mainstream business unionism and seeks to broaden workplace struggles to take up social issues outside of the workplace, not only class issues like gentrification but also racism and the criminal justice system. The problem is, the failure of mainstream unionism to take on these issues is a result of their organizing strategy, which prioritizes alliances with management and the Democratic Party. Social justice unionism seeks to reproduce the same strategy, with little to say about the Democrats and concessionary bargaining but with a bit more rank-and-file involvement and a progressive political gloss. A recent incident among New York teachers around the Eric Garner case has shown precisely how limited this strategy is.

Shortly after Garner’s murder, Al Sharpton began organizing a march against the incident. It is a problem that all protest against police violence in New York has to go through Sharpton, who uses these actions to promote both his career and the Democratic Party. In return, Democratic Party officials promote him as he can assure them that the protests will not go out of the bounds of “responsible” action. In other words, he helps the Democrats put a lid on anything that might turn into a riot. It is a grotesque political operation that is built on the murder of Black men.

Sharpton showed himself to be no different in this case when he announced that a march in response to Garner’s death would not physically walk over the Verrazano Bridge but would take buses so as not to disrupt traffic. This was a result of pressure from Mayor Bill De Blasio, his new political patron. In spite of Sharpton’s role in helping the liberal establishment demobilize militant dissent, he is despised by racists throughout New York City as the official face of anti-racist politics.

Outside of Sharpton’s efforts, opposition to Garner’s killing was widespread and was even forthcoming from the official labor movement, in particular the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City teachers. In response, an angry letter from the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD police union, was sent to the reactionary New York Post attacking the teachers for taking a position on racist murders committed by PBA members.

That the UFT took this decision is surprising and even somewhat encouraging. What is discouraging, though, is the response from the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), which bills itself as “the social justice caucus of the UFT.” That is, MORE is a group of teachers seeking to reform the union and win union office on the claims that the current UFT leadership is undemocratic and, presumably, uninterested in broader issues of social justice.

Unlike the UFT leadership, MORE refused to endorse the march, though this may have only been a procedural issue. More significantly, their statement on Garner made enormous concessions to the police. For example, they state that “MORE believes that due process is a right all workers should have,” a reference to the “due process” presumably deserved by the officer who killed Garner, who will get away with murder and continue harassing Black people just as the cops always do. We know this for a fact now, but it was obvious when the statement was written that this was the most likely outcome

Due process for the police is the first refuge of pro-police scoundrels. It is not the same as due process for other workers. It is a political call put out by the defenders of the cops who want to make sure that no quick decisions are made while tempers die down and nobody is held accountable. It is a defense of the right of the state to kill Black people and then investigate themselves as though there might be a neutral outcome. No radical who has ever been involved in organizing against police killing would ever call for due process for the police any more than they would support police unions–more on that below.

Not all unions

The statement notes that some members of MORE were not going to the protest “due to the concerns surrounding the sponsorship and organization of this march.” These concerns were not only over Sharpton’s self-promotional maneuvers but also that participating made them appear to be “anti-police”–as though there is anything wrong with that. “Rather than allowing these issues to divide us,” they write, “we encourage the leaderships of the UFT and PBA to find ways to work together and unite us.”

The PBA is one of the most reactionary institutions in New York City. After the grand jury announced that they would not indict the cop who killed Garner, thePBA held a press conference blaming Garner for resisting arrest and thus causing his own death. The PBA is the front-line defender of racist police killings and every politician in New York has to tip-toe around their vile outbursts if they want to get elected. If any politician criticizes the police, the PBA will issue a racist rant that will send them running for their career because they are afraid of appearing to be “anti-police.”

Sharpton needs De Blasio, who in turn needs the acceptance of the PBA, and this informal unholy alliance is partly to blame for the ongoing status quo in New York, a liberal city with deeply racist attitudes toward millions of its citizens. If union activists cannot develop a strategy to break this unholy alliance, or weaken it, or build an alternative to it, then they cannot achieve much at all. This is the real problem, not whether the leadership of their union gives paper support for social justice.

The UFT does not need unity with the PBA, rather it needs to wage an all out political battle with the people who harass and beat and jail their students and their own members. Unionists who are afraid of appearing to be “anti-police” and want to work with the PBA are not serious fighters for anything remotely like “social justice.” In the post-Occupy, post-Oscar Grant, post-Michael Brown era, this hardly needs patient explaining. There must be plenty of teachers who are prepared to act boldly and that would be the basis for a far more powerful alliance–if somewhat smaller–than any cobbled-together group who happen to like the “social justice” label.

If social justice unionism means tiptoeing around the reactionary pressures coming from within the caucus, then it means nothing at all. This is not a strategy to fight for social justice, but it might ultimately be a successful strategy to win the next union election, which is precisely the problem. Union members who slap the label of social justice on their organizing, then carry out the same old unionism in slightly newer, shinier bottles, come away surprised that their efforts end up in the same place as every reform effort before. They too are unwilling to challenge the backward ideas among their members as that would be an obstacle to winning the next election. The next election–not union reform, much less total societal transformation–then becomes the new goal, with every concession to this goal making their efforts less and less worthwhile.

We might ask whether it is possible to read too much into MORE’s statement, as the real question is why MORE has not taken bolder action against the killings of Garner and others. The answer lies in the statement itself. MORE is unwilling to challenge the reactionary views in their own caucus and will allow the right-wing to dictate the terms of the alliance. If the radicals in MORE are not willing to oppose calls for an alliance with the PBA, it should hardly be surprising that they are not prepared to take industrial action around these issues.

Not all teachers

At the same time as MORE floundered in the face of their own backward membership, pro-NYPD teachers faced no restrictions of their own. A group of New York City teachers publically advertised their support for the cops bywearing NYPD t-shirts to school. This was widely seen as a jab at UFT’s endorsement of the march against Garner’s killing, and the photo of what appears to be an all white group of teachers must have been terrifying to students throughout the city.

This incident briefly drew national attention and MORE was uniquely positioned to respond to it, not only with words but with actions. Their students certainly would have appreciated seeing adults close to them assert that they were opposed to the police beating up and killing them. Yet, MORE provided no visible response, seemingly eager to put the whole thing behind them.

When the reactionaries are prepared to run roughshod over the dignity of the students and the communities that they are supposed to serve, but “the social justice caucus” is muzzled by its own members, we can see why the labor movement is in such a deep crisis. Nobody is better positioned to take on the blowback in the UFT than the radicals in MORE–and yes there are many self-styled radicals in MORE, including in the leadership–and yet they are handcuffed by the limitations of their coalition.

This ought to have been the moment of triumph for MORE, in which they could have shown themselves to be the fiercest defenders of the oppressed against the New Jim Crow and laid out a path for how labor can lead the battle against it–if that is what they actually wanted. Instead, they have shown themselves incapable of taking on precisely the fight that many people would have thought to be exactly why they exist in the first place.

Deep racism has been exposed by the killing of Garner, from the vile comments of the PBA to the inexplicable support of the NYPD by racist teachers to the inability of the liberal mayor to deal with his own police department. Every institution of society is shown to be dripping with racism, but rather than helping to expose the rot, MORE seeks to cover for it so as not to risk its stature among their fellow teachers. The blind alley that this strategy leads down could not be more clear.

MORE has accepted a position that might keep the caucus together, but at what cost? Conceding to these pro-police views within their caucus and calling for cooperation with the PBA is accepting an evil–not a lesser evil but a greater evil–if the goal is to fight for social justice. No radical should accept this decision, nor do they need to be quiet about it any more than the pro-NYPD teachers felt the need to be quiet about their own awful opinions. Union activists are fooling themselves if they thinks that making concessions to these views will lead toward, rather than away from, the abolition of racist policing.

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