Labor Day is a celebration of the labor movement and its representation of the interests of workers in American society. Unions have historically been a force for good as workers fought for better conditions. But 2020 has brought us a reality check about just how toxic organized labor—in the form of police and teachers unions—can be. These organizations aren’t solely responsible for the ongoing disaster that is this year, but they’ve done their best to make it worse.
On September 4, the Sergeants Benevolent Association, which represents sergeants in the New York City Police Department, tweeted: “He we go America this is what a first class whore looks like RITCHIE TORRES. Passes laws to defund police, supports criminals, & now because he’s running for office he blames the police to protect what he voted for. Remember Little Ritchie? Meet LYING RITCHIE @RitchieTorres”
Later deleted, the semi-coherent and typo-ridden slam targeted New York City councilman and congressional candidate Ritchie Torres for his allegation that city cops were engaged in a “slowdown” to protest police reform efforts like the ones he supports. The tweet’s take-no-prisoners tone is an only slightly exaggerated variation on the usual police union responses to proposals for law enforcement limits and accountability.
New York City’s Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, opposes standardized penalties for police misconduct. In July, it joined in a lawsuit with unions representing firefighters and corrections officers to block the release to the public of records of police officers who have been disciplined.
The union representing New Jersey state troopers similarly sued to keep disciplinary records secret. San Francisco’s police union filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s right to revise its use-of-force policy. California police unions joined together to defeat a bill that would have barred officers guilty of serious misconduct from further police work.
None of this is unusual. “Over the past five years, as demands for reform have mounted in the aftermath of police violence in cities like Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and now Minneapolis, police unions have emerged as one of the most significant roadblocks to change,” The New York Times noted in June. “The greater the political pressure for reform, the more defiant the unions often are in resisting it.”
What is remarkable is that the examples above all came after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd and sparked protests calling for changes in the way police go about their business, especially in minority communities. In context, the unions’ response looks like even more of a raised middle finger to an angry public.
In the following months, many of those protests have turned violent. Maybe the riots would have happened anyway; you can’t cripple an economy and sideline much of the population with lockdown orders without provoking consequences. But police unions played a big role in bringing us to this point by resisting every effort to make law enforcement less confrontational and intrusive. And their continuing resistance to reform pours fuel on the fires burning in many American cities.
Teachers unions, too, bear responsibility for worsening the catastrophe known as 2020. It’s a union’s job to protect the health and safety of its members. But teachers unions consistently went far beyond that mandate, choosing to play politics and push an unrelated anti–school choice agenda rather than focusing on reasonable accommodations in the middle of a national crisis.
As New York City officials struggled at the end of August to get schools reopened with precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the United Federation of Teachers engaged in brinksmanship, leaving parents uncertain as to when, or whether, their kids would be able to resume educations cut short in the spring. The next day, city officials caved and school reopening was pushed back 11 days, subject to union conditions.
Teachers at Arizona’s J.O. Combs Unified Community District conducted an organized sick-out, leaving families scrambling at the last minute.
United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) demanded wealth taxes, police reform, and a moratorium on charter schools as necessary preconditions for reopening public schools. The union settled for concessions that were more job-related.
“Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home,” Politico noted of the flurry of union arm-twisting across the country. “But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.”
Even as they hold children’s education hostage, teachers unions want to keep the kids themselves as prisoners, unable to choose other forms of learning beyond the walls of hobbled government schools.
The UTLA, along with other unions and Democratic Socialists of America, calls not just for a moratorium on charters, but also on voucher programs that help families pay for private school. They’re not alone.
“The Association opposes voucher plans, tuition tax credits, or other such funding arrangements that pay for students to attend sectarian schools,” the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union, says in its 2019–2020 resolutions. “The Association also opposes any such arrangements that pay for students to attend nonsectarian preK through 12 private schools in order to obtain educational services that are available to them in public schools to which they have reasonable access.”
Additionally, the NEA insists that homeschooling “instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.” That would severely restrict the availability of DIY learning and eliminate its attractiveness for many families seeking something different from government schools.
The kind of power wielded by organized police and teachers, particularly their ability to defy calls for change, comes courtesy not only of these unions’ lock on large and powerful tax-funded services, but also their grip on the major political parties.
Teachers unions, for their part, are reliable and even dominant components of the Democratic coalition. The NEA predictably endorsed Joe Biden for president, as did the American Federation of Teachers.
Political candidates who hope for endorsements, funding, and volunteers from these labor unions tend to do their bidding. That means that police reform is off the table for most Republican officeholders, while educational choice is anathema to many Democrats. Such union-fueled obstructionism is awful at the best of times. But in 2020, as law enforcement and government schools alike are consumed by their own flaws, the unions and their cronies make a difficult time worse by hampering efforts to fix serious problems and by standing in the way of people’s efforts to experiment with alternatives.