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Young Larry Payne was killed (by cops) in the struggle to win collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.

Fifty-two years later, cops are benefiting the most from his sacrifice, while striking sanitation workers are being replaced with prison labor.

Nearly everyone has heard at least a part of the story.

Some even remember how it goes.

For eight long weeks in early 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee fought a hard and bloody strike to win their right to collective bargaining as public sector workers. Memphis’s anti-union and anti-Black Mayor Loeb repeatedly vowed on live TV that he would never negotiate a collective contract with municipal employees.

The strike began in response to the February 1st, 1968 deaths of two workers—Echole Cole and Robert Walker—on an unsafe job. The strikers were nearly all Black. Before it was over, the workers, their supporters and their union—AFSCME Local 1733—would be violently attacked by the uniformed (nearly all white) Memphis Police Department and by white-supremacist sniper assassins. Those respective attackers would murder the strike’s two martyrs: 16-year-old Larry Payne(1,2) on March 28th, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th(3).

“But”, the story continues, “These martyrs did not die in vain! Their lives mattered! On April 16, the strike ended with ratification of a collective bargaining agreement. That mayor was forced to eat his words, and the door had finally been opened to the mass unionization of municipal workers, even in anti-union states, even in the Jim-Crow South.”

Indeed, everyone can agree that strike was a major turning point for public sector unionizing. The most famous public union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), had just over 250,000 members before 1968. In the next decade, its membership quadrupled to surpass the one million mark.(4) Ten years earlier, in 1958, public sector workers—in any union—had staged only 15 total strikes nationwide. In 1969, they staged 412 strikes, and throughout the 1970s they averaged 375 strikes per year.(5)

However, despite what you may have heard, the presence of police guilds within the AFL-CIO is a fairly recent experiment. It only began in 1979, when AFL President George—“I’ve never walked a picket line”—Meany(6) went and gave a charter of affiliation to the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA)(7,8).

The AFL had made one attempt at organizing cops before, in 1919 (one year after the AFL’s less conservative rival union federation—the IWW—had been crushed by the federal government(9)); but that attempt had failed, due to the fact that public sector unions were considered illegal in 1919(10). Police guilds had rebuilt themselves since that time, and had engaged in collective bargaining. But prior to 1979, they had done so independently of both the AFL and CIO, while accurately describing themselves as guilds rather than as labor unions.

Shortly after IUPA joined the AFL-CIO, American government launched a tremendous assault against the unions of its non-law-enforcement employees, with President Reagan firing over 11,000 federal air traffic controllers of the PATCO union (which had endorsed him for President in 1980) and banning them from all civil service for the rest of their lives.(5) Both public and private sector union memberships in this country have been in dramatic decline ever since then.(11)

This assault has continuously intensified over the 39 years since then, escalating dramatically in the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, when all unionized public school teachers, bus drivers and social workers in the entire city were fired en masse, their departments subcontracted, and each worker told to apply to non-union private contractors as new-hires for their old jobs—to be considered on a case by case basis.(12,13) This model of privatization was then applied to many other cities and states throughout the US.

It was further intensified 2011 with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation, which has since been copied by lawmakers beyond Wisconsin.(14) It was still further intensified by the Supreme Court’s 2018 anti-union ruling in Janus v AFSCME.(15)

This loss of these economic rights has been paralleled by simultaneous dismantling of civil rights, such as the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to effectively terminate the 1965 Voting Right Act in Shelby County v Holder(16), after which the GOP has continuously controlled the Senate in all elections so far.

Today, this combined loss of economic and human rights has reached such extremes that underpaid Black sanitation workers—on strike since early May against a private subcontractor (Metro Services) in the Jim-Crow State of Louisiana—are literally being replaced by prison labor! These workers have fought back by forming a new union, The City Waste Union. They need and deserve the solidarity of the entire workers’ movement.(17)

However, while most US trade unionists have been taking this 4-decade-long beating, police guilds appear to have been doing pretty well for themselves. We know that in 1988, while overall US union membership was already well into its decline, Police Journal reported that collective bargaining coverage among cops had risen to over 70 percent, and predicted its continued rise in the next decade.(18)

What percentage of cops are represented by their guilds today? The Bureau of Labor Statistics won’t publish a straight answer; but they admit that the most collectively bargained “Service” industry is “Protective service occupations” at 35.8 percent (even when all non-union private mall guards are factored in); and they admit that the most collectively bargained “Public sector” industry is “Local government” at 43 percent (even when all non-law-enforcement civil servants are factored in)(19). The Bureau of Justice Statistics, meanwhile, has released no police employment data since 2016, but the numbers it did release that year seemed to indicate there were approximately 1,050,000 cops in the US if “non-sworn civilian staff” were included, and about 701,000 “sworn officers” in the US(20) (about one “sworn officer” per 468 people). According to the websites of the country’s three largest police guild federations (the FOP, the NAPO and the IUPA), they represent slightly more than 346,000 members, 241,000 members and 100,000 members respectively, for a total of 687,000 members—which is about 65 percent of all cops including civilian staff or about 98 percent of all cops if we were to assume that these guilds mostly represented only sworn officers. In other words, we can safely conclude that the cops have either increased or at least maintained their collective bargaining rate since 1979, while union density outside of law enforcement has been in free-fall during the same time.

This arrangement isn’t working for the rest of us.

Only the smallest of these three large cop guilds—the IUPA—has ever directly affiliated into the House of Labor’s internal business. The FOP and the NAPO have continued to accurately describe themselves as guilds, and haven’t sought to federate with labor unions. Nevertheless, the ice-cold effect of the IUPA’s presence upon the internal life of the AFL-CIO is obvious to any competent journalist who decides to investigate it, as demonstrated by the June 5th, 2020 article “As Protests Grow, Big Labor Sides With Police Unions” (written by a union member).(21)

It is simply a conflict of interest for police guilds to be affiliated to the trade union movement.

Pointing this out is not a matter of “hating cops” or “talking trash”, nor even a reaction to the present wave of lynchings being perpetrated throughout the country by members of law enforcement.

Even if the law enforcement community was not heavily infiltrated by organized white supremacists,(21) and even if award winning EMT Breonna Taylor had not been lynched by cops in Kentucky, and even if Ahmaud Arberey had not been lynched by cops in Georgia, and even if Manuel Ellis had not been lynched by cops in Tacoma, and even if George Floyd had not been lynched by cops in Minneapolis, and even if it had not taken an international popular uprising to secure even the firing—let alone the arrest—of the cops who calmly and confidently murdered Floyd on a busy street in broad daylight, and even if any of the cops who lynched John T. Williams and Charleena Lyles in Seattle, Philando Castile in Saint Paul, Eric Garner in New York, Sandra Bland in Texas, Michael Brown in Missouri, Freddie Gray in Maryland, Terrence Crutcher in Oklahoma and too many more to list here had ever been convicted of any of these murders, and even if all cops were wonderful heroic fairy tale knights (which they’re not), it would still be an economic conflict of interest for organizations of police-persons to be affiliated to the workers’ trade union movement!

The reason it’s a conflict of interest is that police (even the ones who are recruited from the most working class backgrounds and families imaginable) have an inherently different relationship to the present economic mode of production than other laborers do, and an inherently conflicting relationship to the role that workers play in this mode of production.

Workers create all wealth. Cops are hired to guard the wealth that workers create, and to enforce whatever apportionment of that wealth among the population is defined as “legal” by the class in power.

This does not mean that cops are “evil”; nor does it mean that cops are “good”. It simply means that cop guilds in a labor federation is an arrangement that doesn’t work for the workers.

It will be better for us workers (and, frankly, cops too for that matter) if we organize separately from one another. Our halls and theirs will still have phone numbers, so we can still call each other if and when there is a need to communicate.

We workers should break up with the cops today, and wish them continued good health—as we struggle to repair the damage the relationship between us has done to ours.

If you appreciated this article at all, or even any part of it, please consider making a solidarity donation RIGHT NOW to the STRIKE FUND of the New Orleans City Waste Union!


(1) WeAllBeTV “He Died A Week Before MLK: Larry Payne, Forgotten Civil Rights Martyr….” W.E. A.L.L. B.E. News, Radio & TV!!!. January 16th, 2014.

(2) Adams, Genetta. “Watch: Memphis Police Officer Guns Down 16-Year-Old #LarryPayne as Sanitation Strike Continues.” The Root. .

(3) AFSCME.ORG. “1968 AFSCME Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike Chronology.” American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees. .

(4) AFSCME.ORG. “ABOUT AFSCME History.” American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees. .

(5) Murolo, Priscilla. “Five Lessons from the History of Public Sector Unions.”Labor Notes, June 11th, 2018 (

(6)Robinson, Archie. George Meany And His Times.Simon and Schuster, 1981.

(This is Meany’s official authorized biography in which he openly boasts that, in all his time as a union leader, he never once walked a picket line.)

(7) IUPA.ORG. “I.U.P.A. The Voice of Law Enforcement Officers, About Us, Our Legacy.” International Unoion of Police Associations. .

(8) Quinnell, Kenneth. “AFL-CIO, AMERICA’S UNIONS, BLOG, Get to Know AFL-CIO’s Affiliates: International Union of Police Associations.” AFLCIO.ORG. September 23rd, 2019. .

(9)Lundstrom, Jim. “Crushing the IWW.” Peninsula Pulse, July 12th, 2019 (

(10) Fogelson, R M. Unionism Comes To Policing (From Police Accountability Performance Measures And Unionism, 1978, by Richard C Larson, MIT). Lexington Books, 1978.

(11) Shierholz, Heidi. “The number of workers represented by a union held steady in 2019, while union membership fell.” Economic Policy Institute. January 22nd, 2020.

(12) Brenner, Mark. “Workers in the Aftermath of Katrina.” Counterpunch, April 5th, 2006 (

(13) Vanacore, Andrew. “Decision pending on mass firing of New Orleans public school teachers after Hurricane Katrina.” The Times-Picayune, August 29th, 2011 (

(14) Labash, Cheryl. “Hands off ILWU Local 10!: Labor defends dockworkers’ solidarity with Wisconsin struggle.” Fight Back News, April 21st, 2011 (

(15) Ben-Achour, Sabri. “President of NAACP on Janus decision: ‘Civil rights and workers rights are inextricably linked’.” MARKETPLACE.ORG. June 29th, 2018. (

(16) Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act.” The New York Times, June 25th, 2013 (

(17) Elk, Mike. “Replaced by Prison Labor, NOLA Garbage Workers Form Union to Fightback.” Payday Report, May 29th, 2020 ( ( )

(18) Levine, M J. “Historical Overview of Police Unionization in the United States.” Police Journal, Volume 61, Issue 4, October-December 1988, Pages 334-343.

(19) BLS.GOV. “Economic News Release, Table 3. Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by occupation and industry.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 22nd, 2020. (

(20) Bier, Daniel. “How Many Cops Are There In The United States? (2018 Update).” The Skeptical Libertarian, August 24th, 2018 (

(21) Campbell, Alexia Fernandez, Senior Reporter. “As Protests Grow, Big Labor Sides With Police Unions.” The Center for Public Integrity. June 5th, 2020. (

(21) Speri, Alice. “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration Of Law Enforcement.” The Intercept, January 31st, 2017 (

Kids Who Die –by Langston Hughes, 1938

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht

But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die..—Langston Hughes, 1938