The view of Fifth Avenue with a cordon of police officers brandishing billy clubs protecting the block in front of city hall and a stream of protests headed down James Street.
Police stand menacingly as protesters march by at a June 3, 2020 demonstration at Seattle City Hall. (Doug Trumm)

The Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted Wednesday to remove the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) from its ranks, citing a need for antiracist practices. The move follows Seattle Police Department’s (SPD’s) violent response to recent protests of police murders.

The vote was relatively close with several unions speaking in favor of SPOG, including the firefighters’ union, machinists, transit operators, and even the bakers’ union. Slippery slope arguments were made, but ultimately a majority of members voted SPOG out. The final MLK Labor vote tally was 45,435 delegates voted in favor of expelling SPOG and 36,760 delegates against.

Being ejected from the labor council means that SPOG will have less leverage as they negotiate their contract with the City of Seattle later this year. The Seattle City Council has expressed a desire to ratchet up accountability measures and divert some police funding to community-focused investments that tackle root causes rather than symptoms, as Defund The Police protesters have demanded. The police union contract was a huge obstacle to those efforts and it still is, but without the powerful backing of MLK Labor, that obstacle doesn’t appear completely insurmountable.

Three weeks of protests have catapulted police accountability from a buzzword to a political priority.

While the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor happened in other cities, activists have pointed out that police also have dodged accountability locally for the 30 killings that have happened in Seattle over the last decade. One reason why police officers do not typically face serious repercussions for killing or using excessive is that police union contracts shield them, circumventing civilian oversight and allowing officers fired for brutality to be reinstated.

SPOG joined the MLK Labor Council in 2014 just before it negotiated its contract with then Mayor Ed Murray. That police contract was up in 2018 in negotiations with Mayor Jenny Durkan, and SPOG was able to strip accountability measures that the Seattle City Council had put in place. They also negotiated a significant pay raise and hiring bonus. Under pressure from the MLK Labor Council, eight of nine Seattle City Councilmembers voted in favor of the police contract, with only Councilmember Kshama Sawant voting no.

Black union members: It’s us or them

The long festering issue was brought to a head in recent weeks after Black and Brown union members circulated a petition calling for SPOG’s expulsion and making an ultimatum: “It is us or them. We cannot and will not be part of an organization that includes our killers.”

Furthermore, SPOG’s membership on the labor council weakened working class unity and solidarity with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), the petition argued.

“The labor council must represent the interests of the police union and is unable to speak out against their actions as long as SPOG is part of the labor council. That SPOG is still part of the labor council actively undermines the working class unity it tries to facilitate by sacrificing BIPOC workers,” the petition states. “The labor council must stand in solidarity with workers, particularly those who have been historically sacrificed by the labor movement—namely, Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”

The right to collectively bargain is generally sacred on the Left, but SPOG has come under calls of abusing that right.

“Police unions like SPOG obstruct accountability and justice by demanding protections from disciplinary procedures, which is an abuse of the right to collectively bargain,” the petition states. “Unions are meant to protect workers and their labor. By including SPOG as a member, the labor council is legitimizing the idea that police officers’ labor is justifiable at the cost of the lives of Black and Brown people.”

SPOG’s defiant response

SPOG fought to stay in the labor council, but the letter that SPOG President Mike Solan sent to the MLK Labor Executive Board still refused to acknowledge their responsibility and remained defiant in tone.

“We recognize that this has been a painful period for our community,” SPOG leaders state. “It has also been a painful period for our officers but we remain committed to this city. We have felt misunderstood, spurned, betrayed and our working conditions have significantly deteriorated. But we continue to come to work every day, to serve even those who reject us and insult us.”

SPOG leaders touted Mayor Durkan’s defense of their reform efforts and repeated her quote: “The Seattle Police Department has transformed itself.” In a June 7th open letter to Mayor Durkan, Solan also continued to argue for the need for chemical weapons, which the Seattle City Council unanimously banned Monday.

A hardliner promising to dominate the media narrative, Solan won election as union president in February, defeating more moderate Kevin Stuckey, who is Black and led SPOG since 2016. Former police union president Rich O’Neil credited Stuckey with building the relationship with MLK Labor.

“The last contract negotiation, [the labor council] showed up in support wearing SPOG T-shirts. That was amazing,” O’Neil said in a Crosscut interview. “That didn’t happen because they like to support the police. That was because of the effort Kevin put in.”

Back in 2016, MLK Labor Executive Secretary Nicole Grant argued MLK Labor would help SPOG carry out reforms and change its culture: “I think to build real cultural change, change that the officers take to heart is going to be an inside game.” But this month, Grant admitted she was doubting that approach and asked SPOG to renew its commitment to antiracism and de-escalation.

“After what we’ve all experienced as a city over the last couple of weeks, do I feel as confident in that vision of everybody coming together and meeting at the level of our humanity and really changing things?” Grant told Crosscut’s David Kroman. “As beautiful as that vision is, I find myself clinging to it less. I have an obligation to hear what community leaders are saying to the labor movement and to hear what Black union members are saying to the labor council and to be accountable to them and their vision.”

MLK Labor declined to endorse Black candidates like Nikkita Oliver and Shaun Scott that raised the issue of police accountability in their respective 2017 and 2019 campaigns.

Unions fighting to hold police accountable

One of the unions that tipped that balance in favor of expelling SPOG was another recent addition to the council: United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 21. Representing a variety of grocery store, retail, health care, meat processing workers, UFCW 21 is the largest private-sector union in the state, and they’ve immediately become one of the more progressive voices on MLK Labor, signing on for a Seattle payroll tax proposal in addition to the SPOG expulsion effort. The Stranger‘s Rich Smith noted UFCW 21 stance in his coverage.

Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer of UFCW 21, who joined the council with 46,000 members in April, was in the meeting on Monday. He said SPOG’s board made an effort to “check a box of compliance, but in my opinion lacked real reflection or a sense of responsibility for structures of racism in the police department and their role in fighting accountability measures over the last decade.”

Union opinion also seemed to cleave along the lines of which unions had people of color in leadership. For example, SEIU 1199, which represents nurses and other healthcare workers, spoke in favor of expulsion via its Executive Vice President Jane Hopkins, who is a Black registered nurse.

“That letter does not tell me that they have been doing anything wrong and they need to do anything better,” Hopkins said. “And there’s nowhere in that letter that even mentions Black Lives Matter. If you can’t say it, then how are you going to improve those lives?”

While progressives celebrated MLK Labor’s move, former Seattle City Council candidate Shaun Scott warned that the police and their allies could be looking for payback.

“The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild is out of the King County Labor Council, but that doesn’t mean they’ll just go away. Having finally been expelled from the progressive circle of trust (for now), look for their leadership to go on the offensive,” Scott said in a tweet. “Sensing their declining political capital, I suspect the city’s right-wing and the police establishment (and its apologists in Durkan’s office) will start to lash out in really vicious ways. We have to celebrate our wins when we get them, but it’s also important to remain vigilant.”

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.