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One of the demands of Black Lives Matter (BLM) is to de-fund the police. At the center of it are the police unions, since the contracts are negotiated through the police unions. My question is as follows:

  1. Can the police unions be dissolved permanently?
  2. Is it possible to ban police unions in a democratic country?
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    "In a democratic country"? or "in the US"? – CGCampbell Jun 12 at 22:01
  • @CGCampbell Agreed. The OP should clarify that. – Acid Kritana Jun 12 at 22:39
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    "Dissolved" is an ambiguous term, and there's a distinction between "dissolve" and "refuse to recognize as a bargaining partner". – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jun 14 at 2:53
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Technically speaking, any union can be dissolved if the people on the other side of the table are willing to cope with the consequences. A union is merely a collective bargaining structure that negotiates employment contracts as a group. The private sector in the US has a long history of union busting, which generally involves firing all union-affiliated employees — ending their contracts peremptorily — and suffering though months of acrimonious strikes and protests. It becomes a matter of endurance and attrition: the business hopes that loss of income will force striking workers to seek employment elsewhere, thinning and eventually dispersing the protests; the union hopes that strikes will limit production by depriving the business of workers, and impact sales by impugning the business' public reputation, and that the consequent loss of profits will force the company to the bargaining table.

In the early days, union fights were far more violent. Businesses would sometimes hire private police to intimidate or rough up individual union members and leaders, or to physically disperse strikes; this was one of the main sources of revenue for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Likewise, union members would sometimes intimidate and rough up 'scabs' — temporary workers hired by the company — or damage equipment (monkey-wrenching) to slow or prevent production. Those tactics (mostly) disappeared in the US with the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, and while many modern corporations still resist union formation (e.g. Amazon, which is aggressively opposing unionization), most companies that already have unions find collective bargaining more palatable than the alternative.

There is nothing intrinsically different about a public-sector union: i.e., unions for people working in essential public services like police, firefighters, air traffic controllers, metro workers, or the like. People employed in these areas face the same challenges and risks of exploitation as people in the private sector, and collective bargaining is a useful tool to ensure they receive adequate compensation and decent workplace environments. And yes, states and municipalities could decide to simply break the collectively-agreed upon contract, firing all workers who do not agree to new terms and suffering through the inevitable strikes and protests. However, there are two factors relevant to public-sector unions that are not seen in the private sector:

  • The ostensible 'employers' of public-sector workers are not private individuals but publicly elected officials; this gives public-sector unions a purely political impact that increases their bargaining power. A private-sector union is forced to deal with the management as given of the company they work for; a public-sector union can pour its resources into changing the management to something more sympathetic to its interests, using its political clout to elect people who will be inclined to agree with its demands.

  • The public itself becomes a hostage in union negotiations. Unlike a private-sector union squabble, in which the public might (at worst) be forced to turn to a different supplier for the duration, public-sector union squabbles can become immediate threats to the health and safety of the public at large. The public cannot help but be involved in public-sector union battles, because the public will have to 'do for itself' in the event that union members are fired or walk off the job. And obviously, health and safety are 'unlimited value' items for which almost any demand will be met — this is arguably the same reason that the privatized US health system has such exorbitantly high prices; people will pay what's needed to ensure their health — and this too dramatically increases the bargaining power of a public-sector union.

In short, the problem is not that police unions exists or that they could not be dissolved with a certain amount of risk and effort. The problem is that police unions have interests that are (in some cases) directly opposed to the health and safety of the public they ostensibly serve, and they have a strong bargaining position that allows them (in some cases) to enforce demands that are contrary to the public interest. Forcing police unions out of politics — perhaps as a conflict of interest — would be a good start, but until we make some fundamental legal distinctions between public and private-sector unions, the problem will persist.

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  • To expand on your second bullet point: In some locales, public sector unions are legally forbidden from striking for that specific reason. – bta Jun 15 at 18:35
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    In the USA there are going to be 1st Amendment issues if the government tries to force a group out of politics. – Paul Johnson Jun 17 at 15:34
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    @PaulJohnson: the First Amendment is not airtight. Certain kinds of speech are already prohibited (slander/libel, incitement) and others are punishable if they are evaluated as corruption or collusion. One could make the case that police lobbying for certain kinds of protections or benefits at the expense of the public is political corruption, or even outright extortion. It would interesting to see how union lawyers would respond to that. – Ted Wrigley Jun 17 at 15:47
  • @TedWrigley The union lawyers would cite Citizens United. – Paul Johnson Jun 17 at 15:49
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It is certainly possible to ban police unions in a democratic country, as they are banned in the UK for instance. The Police Act 1996 says:

Subject to the following provisions of this section, a member of a police force shall not be a member of any trade union, or of any association having for its objects, or one of its objects, to control or influence the pay, pensions or conditions of service of any police force.

Now there is a Police Federation, which has some of the aims of a union, for example providing legal support for police officers. It just can't be a union, or do some of the things a union can like organize strikes.

There is a very similar law in the US relating to military personnel, so it seems to me that if similar provisions were extended to police officers, it wouldn't be obviously unconstitutional. However, the question wasn't whether the ban would be legal in the USA, so it's something of a moot point.

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  • I don't think this tracks without a lot of explanation. Military personnel are already held to have lesser 1A rights in the context of their service (which makes the referenced law constitutional) while police officers still have their 1A rights in common with other public employees. Another problem is that military personnel are federal employees and the federal government can make its own employment decisions but it would take some substantial contorting for the federal government to restrict state employment decisions. – gormadoc Jun 16 at 16:17
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Can the police unions be dissolved permanently?

The best example here is Camden, NJ. They dismantled their police force because the previous union had been quite powerful, and had driven the salaries of the police force up to unsustainable levels

The transformation began after the 2012 homicide spike. The department wanted to put more officers on patrol but couldn’t afford to hire more, partly because of generous union contracts. So in 2013, the mayor and city council dissolved the local PD and signed an agreement for the county to provide shared services. The new county force is double the size of the old one, and officers almost exclusively patrol the city. (They were initially nonunion but have since unionized.)

You'll note the new police force is now unionized again. The catch here is that it is a public sector union, which gives it more clout than a private sector union. Chris Christie, former NJ gov, had it out with them a decade ago

The firestorm that these proposals have sparked demonstrates the political clout of state-workers' unions. Christie's executive order met with vicious condemnation from union leaders and the politicians aligned with them; his fight with the public-school teachers prompted the New Jersey Education Association to spend $6 million (drawn from members' dues) on anti-Christie attack ads over a two-month period. Clearly, the lesson for reform-minded politicians has been: Confront public-sector unions at your peril.

Public sector unions have the benefit of being able to support politicians who back them, which gives them an enormous advantage when it comes to negotiating benefits and representation. The unions are more likely to be negotiating with allies. It is therefore unlikely that police unions could be dissolved permanently, especially in states where they have been entrenched for decades.

Is it possible to ban police unions in a democratic country?

It is, but the catch is finding enough support for it. There's still a large segment that would like to see unionization expanded. That article argues for state-level negotiating power. It would be hard at a national level, considering that the concept of unionization has never polled in the negative

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    You seem to be putting all the blame at the foot of unions and accepting (without balance IMO) that the unions were getting "generous union contracts" as the cause. You have presented a political anti-union position here and your point that the workers will re-unionize ASAP is lost in that. I would suggest trimming the political interpretation and leaving mostly the facts : a union was disbanded for political reasons and then a new one formed because it's what the new work force wanted. That's seems to be the core point relevant to the question asked. – StephenG Jun 13 at 19:42
  • Just to clarify, I could vote up an amended answer as I describe it, but as it stands the answer is too skewed (obviously IMO). – StephenG Jun 13 at 19:43
  • The question of banning police unions is an interesting one in the current political environment, as the traditional allies of organized labor are mostly blue, and the present political sentiment against police generally (as opposed to repudiation of specific, individual police actions) is also mostly blue. – John Bollinger Jun 14 at 0:05
  • @JohnBollinger Blue as in pro-police ("blue lives matter") or blue as in associated with politically right-wing? – gerrit Jun 15 at 12:04
  • @gerrit, blue as in politically left wing. – John Bollinger Jun 15 at 12:41
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Yes. There are already laws in the United States that prohibit unions for military service personnel. See US Code Ch. 10-976:

(b) It shall be unlawful for a member of the armed forces, knowing of the activities or objectives of a particular military labor organization—
    (1) to join or maintain membership in such organization; or
    (2) to attempt to enroll any other member of the armed forces as a member of such organization.

(c) It shall be unlawful for any person—
    (1) to enroll in a military labor organization any member of the armed forces or to solicit or accept dues or fees for such an organization from any member of the armed forces; or
    (2) to negotiate or bargain, or attempt through any coercive act to negotiate or bargain, with any civilian officer or employee, or any member of the armed forces, on behalf of members of the armed forces, concerning the terms or conditions of service of such members;
    (3) to organize or attempt to organize, or participate in, any strike, picketing, march, demonstration, or other similar form of concerted action involving members of the armed forces that is directed against the Government of the United States and that is intended to induce any civilian officer or employee, or any member of the armed forces, to...

See the link for the full code, but it's a comprehensive ban on any activity that Unions engage in for all members of the US Armed Forces.

There's no legal or political (I.E. procedural) reason that this could not be made applicable to the Police too, so it's certainly possible.

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  • Its not simple, but in general the US military operates under its own parallel judicial and legal system: mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1131/… . Bringing the police under a similar system would be a challenge, and might well be rejected by the courts on the grounds that the needs of the police for discipline are not the same as the military. E.g. it is not a crime for a police officer to fail to comply with a direct order, police officers can resign, etc. – Paul Johnson Jun 18 at 15:42
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Is it possible to ban police unions in a democratic country?

No. Unions are an expression of the First Amendment to peacefully assemble.

Can the police unions be dissolved permanently?

A particular union might be, but only if it is deemed a criminal organization. That's a high bar, and it's barely ever reached.

Even if this happens, nothing prevents cops from starting a new police union afterwards.


Note that the constitution does not grant any privileges to unions. The city council would be free to ignore any union, if there is no state law granting special privileges (but many states grant such privileges). But the question is about banning unions, not about retracting its privileges.

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    That doesn’t seem accurate. Republicans have been fighting, quite successfully, to weaken or destroy other unions, particularly public-sector ones. Why would police unions be different? – divibisan Jun 12 at 14:49
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    @divibisan I think distinction has to be made between ‘destroying’ unions by making them not economically viable due to not giving them privileges that would make membership interesting or compulsory and between banning them / dissolving them by a law. The above answer seems to focus on the latter not former – 1muflon1 Jun 12 at 15:14
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    @divibisan The Constitution doesn't mention any privileges for unions. Nowhere is stated that they should have any say in budget negotiations. But the question is about the union itself, not about its privileges. – Sjoerd Jun 12 at 15:22
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    Removing the privileges of a union, in particular 1) collective bargaining powers and 2) not allowing dues to be required, are effectively union-killers. "Unions" can still exist without these, but they effectively become just issue lobbyists, they don't have any of the normal powers of a union. – Bryan Krause Jun 12 at 22:46
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    I downvoted this answer, on the grounds that it's outright wrong. Some unions are banned in the US; specifically military unions. The implication of the answer is that the constitution prevents this from happening, and that is not the case. – Dan Scally Jun 15 at 10:24

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