When Gabriel Acevero, a Maryland state legislator employed by a union local, introduced a bill last year to roll back protections for police accused of misconduct, he was stepping on a potential fault line. His union, Local 1994 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, represents thousands of Black and Latino workers in food services and at a variety of government agencies. It also includes a small portion of workers in law enforcement.
That fault line turned out to be a chasm that could swallow him up. In mid-June, Mr. Acevero filed a formal charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the union of illegally firing him because of his reform advocacy.
“The reason why I was terminated,” Mr. Acevero said, “was about legislation.”
The union local’s president, Gino Renne, said he fired Mr. Acevero because of his antagonistic attitude at a meeting to discuss the issue. But he also said Mr. Acevero’s stand complicated “our obligation to represent our members.”
As killings of Black men in police custody have exposed deep tensions across American society, few institutions have been as precariously positioned as organized labor. In recent weeks, millions of union members, many of them nonwhite, have called for far-reaching changes to policing practices. Some of those demands have been aimed at the police unions that have long resisted change.
This has, in turn, complicated life for thousands of national, state and local labor officials.
Over all, according to estimates based on government data, about 55 percent of the nation’s roughly 700,000 police officers were union members last year.
While the largest police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, has only a tenuous relationship with the labor movement, many unions count law enforcement officers among their diverse membership. Leaders of these unions acknowledge the urgency of reform, but fear that distancing themselves from law enforcement colleagues, or limiting their rights, could weaken labor and create pressure to roll back protections for other workers.
“We have to be very careful in the labor movement that we don’t stand up and say it’s OK to tell one group of people that they shouldn’t be able to organize,” said Terry Melvin, the secretary-treasurer of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O. and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, an international organization. “That’s something that would be a slippery slope if it will open the door for others to come up with reasons that another group should not be able to organize.”
Over the past few weeks, the jostling among these interests has produced a mix of awkward compromises, papered-over differences and outright flare-ups, with no resolution in sight.
The national A.F.L.-C.I.O. — which counts the International Union of Police Associations, with its tens of thousands of members, as an affiliate, in addition to officers in other unions — has endorsed a wide-ranging police reform agenda. That includes legislation by House Democrats that lowers the threshold for prosecuting misconduct, effectively bans chokeholds and certain no-knock warrants and would create a national database for tracking misconduct.
In at least one prominent instance, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s position appears contradictory. The federation formally backed a recent resolution passed by Seattle’s labor council calling on the local police union to become a partner in reform or risk expulsion. Yet the A.F.L.-C.I.O. leadership opposes the expulsion of police unions, a step taken by the Seattle council in mid-June.
“We supported that resolution,” the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, said in an interview, before adding: “We believe that it is not the time to disaffiliate. We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage with police unions.”
Some of the country’s largest and most progressive unions, like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, also represent groups of law enforcement officers, prompting their leaders to walk a similar line. In some cases law enforcement unions have shown solidarity with other unions, such as during contract negotiations and campaigns for scheduling reforms.
Yet just below the national leadership, seams have begun to show. Kyle Bragg, the president of the service employees’ Local 32BJ, which represents tens of thousands of cleaners and other building workers across the Northeast, rejoiced over the recent repeal — over police unions’ objections — of a New York statute that was used to keep officers’ disciplinary records from public view.
But he said his largely minority membership wanted lawmakers to go much further. “The blue wall really has to come down,” Mr. Bragg said in an interview. “I don’t have the ability to bargain ‘no penalties, no consequences, no accountability’ for my members if they do something egregious on the job.” The union also supports redirecting “some of the massive spending on policing” to schools, health care and housing, according to a spokeswoman.
Mr. Bragg said he had discussed police reform with leaders across the S.E.I.U., including officials of the police union that represents the officers involved in the recent killing of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s in Atlanta.
“We are constantly talking to our brothers and sisters in those unions about these issues,” he said. “No one has shut a door. Obviously there are issues that law enforcement unions have against some of the more popular demands that are being made nationwide.”
The limits of internal labor dialogue have also become apparent. In Seattle, the police union responded to the labor council’s ultimatum with a letter acknowledging that structural racism causes “undue harm” to people of color and promising “to embrace reform and accountability.” The two sides had what was by all accounts an earnest discussion of the problem during a two-and-a-half hour meeting, yet the labor council still voted to expel the police union.
Their views may have simply been irreconcilable. Near the end of the conversation, Nicole Grant, the labor council’s executive secretary-treasurer, cited the killing of a mentally disturbed woman by the Seattle police in 2017, after the woman reportedly brandished a knife, as evidence that policing needed to be rethought.
“I said this can never happen in Seattle again,” Ms. Grant recalled. But she said the union head, Mike Solan, interpreted the episode differently. “Solan’s response was that it was tragic, but that it will happen again,” because of human nature, Ms. Grant said.
Mr. Solan said in an interview that the death reflected a breakdown of other systems, not policing, and that the police had de-escalated a similar situation involving the same woman two weeks earlier, but that her behavior had remained erratic after a judge released her from custody. “For de-escalation to work, it takes two parties,” he said. “The person on the other end of police interaction has a say in how that interaction goes.”
In some ways, the differences between Mr. Acevero, the Maryland lawmaker who was fired from his union position, and his boss at the union, Mr. Renne, proved equally insurmountable.
Mr. Acevero was a Black Lives Matter activist when he began working for the union local in 2016, and continued to be outspoken about police reform. In 2019, after successfully running for the Maryland House of Delegates, a part-time position, he introduced a bill known as Anton’s Law that would have required police departments to release records of complaints against officers.
Later that year, he pushed for similar measures, such as a repeal of the state’s so-called Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which provides procedural protections for police accused of misconduct.
In December 2019, after Mr. Renne received complaints about Mr. Acevero’s reform advocacy from the head of the local Fraternal Order of Police, and from sheriff’s deputies represented by the food workers’ union, Mr. Renne gathered them all for a meeting to address the concerns.
According to contemporaneous notes from one person in attendance, Mr. Renne, a former sheriff’s deputy, told Mr. Acevero he favored a more constructive approach to addressing police misconduct. Torrie Cooke, the local president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said a labor official shouldn’t be promoting anti-labor laws. Both Mr. Acevero and Mr. Cooke are Black.
After Mr. Acevero responded that he favored collective bargaining rights but that existing protections shielded “corrupt cops,” the conversation became more heated, according to both men and other participants. Then Mr. Renne abruptly told him he was fired.
The two union leaders, Mr. Renne and Mr. Cooke, “were attempting to get me to stop working on that legislation, and I refused,” Mr. Acevero said in an interview. He said that the entire meeting was inappropriate because it was intended to pressure him in his role as a public official, which had nothing to do with his union obligations.
Mr. Cooke, the police union president, said that he played no role in Mr. Acevero’s firing. Mr. Renne said he took the action because of Mr. Acevero’s inappropriate manner at the meeting, not his position on police reform.
But he acknowledged that it would have been difficult to continue to employ Mr. Acevero because his advocacy “compromises our position as a union.”
Wilma B. Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, said that firing an employee for outside work on police reform could be interpreted as a violation of labor rights. But the burden is on the employee to show how the reform efforts affect work life and conditions, she said.
In many ways the incident was a harbinger of the strains to come. Asked how he might balance the escalating demands of his predominantly minority membership for police reform against the anxieties of his law enforcement members, Mr. Renne professed a measure of befuddlement. “It’s a tightrope,” he said, before noting that the country’s current policing model isn’t working.
“If you are an exclusive police union, taking a position for or against reform is not as challenging,” Mr. Renne continued. “But when you are a union such as myself and other unions in the labor movement who are not exclusive law enforcement unions, this becomes a much more complex challenge.”
Marc Tracy contributed reporting.