Determined to make their communities safe for everybody, and building on last year's AFT resolution to work on ensuring justice for all, two AFT committees devoted to civil rights and public safety met over a weekend in June to review our union's work on racial equity so far and start devising next steps.
The meeting, in which all three national officers participated, featured panels of experts on the role of labor in criminal justice reform, a roundtable discussion led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, and small-group discussions on how communities of color, public safety professionals and labor unions can work together for the common good.
"We will not be able in one weekend to undo 400 years of compounded racial hatred, bigotry and racism," Weingarten told the group. "But we can start to build trust between communities of color and people who are entrusted with law enforcement."
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson welcomed members of the AFT Civil and Human Rights Committee and the Criminal Justice/Public Safety Task Force to the meeting June 22-24 near Baltimore, her hometown, describing a police ride-along and expressing the conviction that more citizens need to do ride-alongs so they can learn the dangers police face.
Prominent in the discussions were activists who are both African-American and members of the law enforcement community. Noting that five U.S. correctional officers have been killed in the line of duty since the beginning of this year, Darrin Spann, a former corrections officer in Pennsylvania who now works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said public safety officers need better safety equipment, such as stab-proof vests, as well as more training in mental health. Without it, he said, officers might "take psychosis as pure hostility."
Police often feel vilified, he said, while at the same time acknowledging that even as a public safety officer himself, being African-American, he pays attention when he spots a police cruiser behind him. "We shouldn't stay away from the conversation," he admitted, "and we often do."
Meeting participants praised the work of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a comprehensive report and implementation guide in 2015. The report and its recommendations are built on building trust and legitimacy, community policing and oversight, training, and officer wellness and safety—themes that threaded through the AFT's joint meeting as well.
AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker led participants in a discussion of how unions organize for the common good, and how these practices apply to racial equity in law enforcement. "When you are bargaining for the common good," Ricker said, "it's essential to have a foundation of self-examination." Questions included: What links workers and prison inmates in their humanity? Should public safety professionals be provided with periodic mental health support? What's a barrier to prosperity in our community? And where do we have the power to make a difference?
Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, cited her organization's constitution, saying that, "as a labor movement, we're required to shut down systemic injustices in every way we can."
When Weingarten asked how union members can help fellow members on the frontlines of public safety, the answer was unanimous: Talk it out.
"You talk about what happened," seconded Ronald Hampton, a retired police officer now with the National Police Accountability Project. "The officers' side, and the community side. Why did all those people march, all those mothers who lost sons? We ought to have a conversation about it. There was a reason why. Having a conversation brings up the reason why. We may not leave the room agreeing, but we can have a conversation."
"That dialogue, that reaching out," agreed J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, whose members include border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. "It's easy to build our silos in our unions, just to bring your little group. We have to sit down, and we have to have these conversations together."