March 2, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – A Left Labor Project forum held this week focusing on organized labor’s response to police conduct in the choking death of Eric Garner last summer, gave a glimpse into just how volatile the issue continues to be.
Steve Kramer, executive vice-president, 1199 SEIU, conceded that the local representing some 400,000 healthcare workers in five states, has experienced “conflict within our own union.”
According to Kramer, that turmoil manifested in the “backlash” the union faced on Staten Island last July when it participated in a march in the wake of Garner’s death.
“When you watch that video [of police choking Garner], you know a crime was committed,” Kramer said.
Despite the grumblings from some members, Kramer stressed the importance of speaking out against injustice, and urged other labor organizations to do the same.
“We feel that as a union we can’t be backed off from what is right and just,” Kramer said. “And we need to make sure the officers of our unions take a stand.”
One attendee, however, said that he was “personally embarrassed by labor’s silence” on the Eric Garner case.
Activist Carmen Dixon of #BlackLivesMatter, sought organized labor’s support in the fight for police reform, stressing the idea that the Eric Garner case — along with broader issues of institutionalized racism — should be rallying point for workers everywhere.
“Labor needs to be coming together,” Dixon said. “This is labor’s issue at its root.”
Earlier this week, the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council met in Atlanta and established a new labor commission on race and social justice, and charged it with the task of talking to members nationwide about the need to combat racism.
According to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, racism is being used to both divide the house of labor, and inhibit its ability to win higher wages for workers.
Retired NYPD detective Carleton Berkley said that there is, indeed, a lot more that labor can do to affect change, while also blaming Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch for sparking the ugly police union fight with Mayor Bill de Blasio here in New York City.
“We need each other,” Berkley said. “Whenever we go against each other, it’s not going to work.”
Delores Jones-Brown, professor at CUNY and author of “Race, Crime and Punishment,” praised other police departments around the country, including cops in Cincinnati, who have actively joined their communities in reform, rather than “digging in their heels.”
Noting the amount of political muscle that labor enjoys in New York City, Berkley said, “You guys go out there and knock on the doors [for political candidates]. You give them everything. Just imagine what labor could do.”