Cops for Labor?
Police support for protesters in Wisconsin was an
exception to the historical rule.
By Kristian Williams
Dollars and Sense
October 3, 2011
In February of this year, Madison, Wisc., became the
front line of the American class war.
Governor Scott Walker announced a bill to strip public
employees of most of their union rights. Thousands of
workers occupied the Capitol building in response. Tens
of thousands participated in protests outside.
The civilly disobedient unions found themselves with a
surprising ally-the police.
Off-duty cops joined the protests, some wearing "Cops
for Labor" and "Deputies for Democracy" t-shirts. When
the governor threatened to close the Capitol and
forcibly end the sit-in, cops showed up with sleeping
bags and stayed the night.
Of course it couldn't last.
Within a few days the police did clear the protestors
out of the Capitol-first by enforcing rules prohibiting
blankets and chairs, then by preventing new protestors
from joining the action, and finally, by escorting out
the remaining stalwarts. A few weeks later, the cops
were less gentle, ejecting protestors who tried to re-
occupy the Capitol and prevent the legislature's vote.
Despite the much-lauded peacefulness of the protests,
the cops made 59 arrests at the Madison rallies, and
cleared away barricades the protestors had erected
around the Capitol building.
And that is exactly what we should have expected.
In the midst of the sit-in, Wisconsin Law Enforcement
Association executive board president Tracy Fuller
confessed that his members would "absolutely" use force
if so ordered. Fuller told reporter Stephen C. Webster
that the notion of resisting orders "hasn't even come
up." He said: "I'm not able to even fathom that any of
those police officers would not carry out whatever
orders were given." Fuller went on: "I guess that's the
one ironic thing about this. ... I could be down there
confronting my wife with the protest sign that I made.
... That's my job."
Fuller is not the first officer to experience this
ambivalence. The police, whose job consists in large
part of controlling the working class and protecting
the interests of the rich, are themselves nevertheless
often of working-class extraction and endure many of
the frustrations of wage labor. As individuals, their
sympathy for striking workers might be expected, but as
a body-as the police-their role in repressing the labor
movement has been a defining element of the
Backing Up Labor
In times of open class conflict the cops have not
generally been on the side of the strikers. That was
true in Chicago in 1886, and in Lawrence in 1912, in
San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934, Detroit in 1995,
Charleston in 2000-and in dozens of other massacres and
thousands of picket-line skirmishes. Nevertheless,
there have been exceptions-historic moments when the
police sided with the workers.
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, local cops
repeatedly proved unreliable in the face of labor
unrest-placing personal or class loyalty above the
demands of the job. That was especially true in small
towns where the cops had social and familial ties with
the strikers. For example, in June 1874, the mayor and
sheriff of Braidwood, Ill., refused to deputize
Pinkerton guards. Instead they deputized striking
miners, disarmed the Pinkertons, and arrested
The most famous case, thanks to the 1987 John Sayles
movie Matewan, is that of Matewan, W. Va., where Police
Chief Sid Hatfield was himself a former miner. During
the 1920 strike, Hatfield enforced the law in ways that
favored the workers, and ultimately engaged in a shoot-
out with Baldwin-Felts Agency goons working for the
mine owners. He was acquitted of murder charges, but
later assassinated by detective company gunmen.
Even in cities, where the police were more removed from
the larger community, cops did sometimes refuse to move
During a 1902 streetcar strike, the mayor of the
Providence suburb Pawtucket openly sided with the
striking workers, and the police did almost nothing to
impede their activities. That same year, in New
Orleans, the police didn't just stand aside, but
actually attacked the scabs, arresting them on weapons
charges and (as one newspaper put it) "slamming them
Police in Richmond, Va., faced criticism for their
sympathetic handling of a 1903 streetcar strike, and
the sheriff of nearby Henrico was even tried for
neglect of duty. According to the Virginia Passenger
and Power Company (which made the complaint), Sheriff
Simon Solomon provided no protection for the
streetcars, refused the militia's assistance, and
arrested scabs "who had bravely fought in defense of
their lives" against striking workers. He was
In 1907, after scabs shot into a crowd of strikers, the
San Francisco chief of police declared "if any
strikebreakers start shooting ... they will be shot in
return by the police." Thirteen scabs were later
arrested for their part in the incident.
In 1913, 29 Indianapolis cops refused to ride
streetcars during a strike; citing Mayor Samuel Shank's
public support of the strike, they managed to avoid
discipline. During the 1919 Steel Strike, Cleveland
Mayor Harry Davis ordered police to treat scabs as
suspicious persons. Likewise, during the 1934 Milwaukee
Electric Railway and Light Company strike, Mayor Daniel
Hoan ordered the arrest of 150 strikebreakers.
Historian James Richardson discerns a pattern in the
way the cops handled strikes: "the police tended to
follow the lines of power. ... If the authorities
favored the workers or were at least neutral, the
police remained neutral. If on the other hand,
political leaders and newspapers viewed the strikers as
un-American radicals or a threat to the town's
prosperity ... then the police acted as agents of
employers in their strikebreaking activities."
However, there have also been times when the police
took their own initiative in supporting strikers,
disobeying orders and even facing discipline.
In 1877, police in Paterson, N.J., refused to
participate in anti-strike activities. In Buffalo,
sympathetic cops were suspended during the 1892
switchman's strike. Chicago police declined to
interfere with the destruction of property during the
Pullman Strike of 1894, and even contributed to the
worker's relief committee; an entire unit was suspended
in response. In Cleveland, 1896, cops were suspended
and fined when they disregarded orders to move against
In Columbus, 1910, 32 patrolmen and 23 special
officers-about a quarter of the police force-were
suspended when they refused orders to protect scabs. In
1916, five NYPD patrolmen were fired for refusing to
guard trains during a transit strike. And in 1929, five
New Orleans cops resigned rather than help break a
streetcar strike there.
In 1974, Baltimore police, in violation of state law,
went on strike in solidarity with the city's AFSCME
workers. Looting broke out, the governor sent in the
State Police, and the strike was defeated. The police
union was fined $25,000 and its president fined another
More recently, during the 1997 UPS strike, Terry
Martin, president of the Houston Police Patrolmen's
Union, issued a memo urging "zero tolerance" for scab
trucks. He advised officers to "do everything possible
to get that UPS `scab' truck off the road."
In Portland, where I live, I once saw a police sergeant
refuse to clear a crowd of supporters of the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW) out of the lobby of a hotel
in the midst of a labor dispute. He told the owner, "We
enforce the criminal law, not labor law." In that case,
the owner went over his head and an hour later the riot
squad showed up, led by a lieutenant. Discipline and
Coercion Of course, those cases are notable precisely
because they are exceptions. More typically police have
responded to strikes with surveillance, harassment,
arrests, and violence.
In his book Policing a Class Society, Sidney Harring
cites several mechanisms that serve to maintain the
obedience of the police during strikes. These include
racism and ethnic divisions, disdain for unskilled or
low-wage workers, organizational norms and discipline,
the law-and-order ideology, the criminalization of
strike activity, and incentives such as overtime pay or
bonuses. Most of these work by using the personal
biases and institutional culture of the police to
undercut their sympathy for disobedient workers-
especially when those workers are immigrants or people
of color. Furthermore, those officers who participate
in strike duty may receive added financial rewards,
while those who avoid strike duty may lose the respect
of their peers or face punishment. This combination of
coercion, compensation, and ideological justification
have mostly worked to keep the cops following their
orders and breaking strikes.
But the minority of cases-those in which these controls
didn't hold-deeply worried the authorities. Individual
refusals or small mutinies could be handled by the
usual methods of discipline. But where the state's
coercive apparatus showed signs of systemic failure,
the authorities have been quick to make new
The move away from the militia system is a case in
point. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, while
some militia units simply massacred strikers, others
lent various levels of support to the workers' cause.
In several Pennsylvania towns-Harrisburg, Morristown,
and Altoona-the militia surrendered to the union.
Militiamen openly fraternized with striking workers in
Newark, Ohio, and Hornellsville, N.Y. In Lebanon, Pa.,
the militia mutinied. And in Reading, one militia
company intervened against another to protect the
strikers: "If you fire at the mob, we'll fire at you."
It was the experience of this strike that led to the
re-organization of the traditional militia system into
the modern, more militarized National Guard-arguably, a
change of Constitutional magnitude.
Similarly, it was the unreliability of small-town cops
in cracking down on labor that led private companies in
Pennsylvania to form the Coal and Iron Police in 1865.
This was a private force, controlled by the railroads
and mining companies, but deputized by the state in
exchange for a fee of one dollar per officer. In 1905,
following the Great Anthracite Strike, this private
army was first supplemented and eventually replaced by
the first modern state police force, the Pennsylvania
The State Constabulary was designed as a strikebreaking
force and organized along military lines. The men were
recruited from throughout the state to diminish local
loyalties; they were housed in barracks to prevent the
formation of community bonds. And they were rigorously
trained, strictly disciplined, and drilled in military
tactics. The Pennsylvania State Federation of Labor
called them "Cossacks."
Institutionalized Conflict and Vertical Solidarity
We've seen far fewer instances of police/labor
alliances since the 1930s. Ironically, however, this
decline in solidarity has less to do with militarized
repression than with the institutionalization of the
labor movement, on the one hand, and the creation of
police unions on the other.
On the first point, it's important to remember that
before the National Labor Relations Act, unions were
widely treated as criminal conspiracies, strikes as a
form of extortion. Class war under such circumstances
was something more than a metaphor.
When unions were legalized, the focus of struggle moved
off the streets and into the courts-to the benefit of
the bosses, in the long run. As Howard Zinn observed,
"Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were
more controllable-more stabilizing for the system than
the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the
rank-and-file." By 1946 GM's main demand in contract
talks was "union responsibility for uninterrupted
In the new period of institutionalized unionism there
was less actual conflict, so the cops were less
frequently presented with the question "Which side are
Meanwhile, in the 1940s, police started to form their
own unions. City leaders first responded by firing
union supporters, but soon offered a path of least
resistance that led away from the main body of the
labor movement and toward police-only organizations.
For example, in 1942, police commanders approved the
creation of the Detroit Police Officers Association in
order to undercut a union drive sponsored by the
American Federation of Labor. Likewise, in New York,
facing union-friendly court rulings and a Teamsters
organizing campaign, administrators opted to negotiate
with the existing (and more pliable) Patrolman's
This strategy diminished the possibility of solidarity
between the cops and other public employees, and
allowed local governments to treat police always as a
special case. Cops are generally barred from striking,
but they receive more generous pay, health, and
retirement benefits. Furthermore, unions use the
bargaining process to insulate the police from
meaningful oversight and accountability. Contract
negotiations become, as sociologist Margaret Levi puts
it, an exercise in "collusive bargaining"-taking the
outward appearance of conflict, while actually
operating in terms of a union/management consensus.
The result is a kind of vertical solidarity. The police
unions and police management negotiate a unifying
agenda; the unions then function both internally, as a
mechanism for preserving the loyalty of the low-level
officers and externally, as the political arm of the
police institution overall. The police union becomes,
at once, the lobbying body, the media representatives,
the fundraising mechanism, the electoral machine, and-
when they participate in demonstrations-the shock
troops of the law-and-order agenda.
Moreover, the police union can earn its keep by
defending the indefensible-allowing commanders and
civil authorities to distance themselves from
controversies involving racial profiling or the use of
force. Elected officials need only point to the union
contract and insist that it is beyond their power to
discipline the officers involved.
The power of the police union lies largely in its
ability to insulate individual officers, and thus the
department as a whole, from political pressure,
civilian oversight, and public accountability. One
consequence, as sociologist Rodney Stark noted 40 years
ago, was "the emergence of the police as a self-
conscious, organized, and militant political
constituency, bidding for far-reaching political power
in their own right."
In broad terms, the police agenda has been right-wing-
suspicious of social change, intolerant of disorder,
hostile to individual or civil rights, punitive in its
response to crime, and quick to justify the use of
force. But as the recent events in Wisconsin show, when
their interests are under attack, the police may be
pushed, at least for a while, into alliance with the
Limits and Threats
The instances in which the police align with labor are
remarkable precisely because they are exceptions. And
as exceptions, they are short-lived, disconnected,
isolated occurrences. Yet they point to a possible
limit to the willingness of police officers,
individually or as a group, to protect the interests of
capitalists by repressing the legitimate demands of
The interesting thing about Wisconsin is not that the
police eventually fell back into their usual role, but
that they briefly threatened to depart from it.
Ultimately, however, this fact may say less about the
cops or their unions than about the severity of the
change that Walker and the Republicans are seeking to
The threat to unions today is so severe that it has
disrupted the normal institutional framework that
manages and contains class conflict. The main purpose
of that framework is to minimize social and economic
disruption, and it has always protected the interests
of the bosses better than those of the workers.
Governor Walker may believe that by weakening the
unions he can destroy the labor movement. What he
risks, however, is freeing the movement from its
institutional confines. The shifting position of the
police is just one symptom of this destabilizing
effect. It is because the new law limits the legal
rights of unions that the ensuing crisis has opened
space for increased militancy.
What cannot be negotiated under the law will inevitably
be settled by other means.
KRISTIAN WILLIAMS is the author of Our Enemies in Blue:
Police and Power in America (South End Press, 2007),
and a member of the National Writers Union (UAW Local
SELECTED SOURCES: Jeremy Brecher, Strike!, Boston:
South End Press, 1972; Robert M. Fogelson, Big-City
Police, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University
Press, 1977; Sidney L. Harring, Policing A Class
Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915,
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983; Bruce C.
Johnson, "Taking Care of Labor: The Police in American
Life," Theory and Society, Spring 1976; Eugene L.
Leach, "The Literature of Riot Duty: Managing Class
Conflict in the Streets, 1877-1927," Radical History
Review, Spring 1993; Margaret Levi, Bureaucratic
Insurgency: The Case of Police Unions, Lexington,
Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1977; Katherine Mayo,
Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State
Police, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1917; Stephen H.
Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries
and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America, Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002; Robert
Reiner, The Blue-Coated Worker: A Sociological Study of
Police Unionism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1978; Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to
Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking
and Unionbusting in the United States, Athens: Ohio
University Press, 2003; Rodney Stark, Police Riots:
Collective Violence and Law Enforcement, Belmont,
California: Focus Books, 1972; Samuel Yellen, American
Labor Struggles, 1877-1934, New York: Pathfinder, 1936.
PortsideLabor aims to provide material of interest to
people on the left that will help them to interpret the
world and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
PS Labor Archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate