As Democrats resume power in D.C. and extend their majorities in Olympia, they will owe these gains to minorities and unions and women. And yet, progressive Democrats’ desire to rein in police unions (and some other areas) will put them in a political squeeze.
Police unions are making this easier for Democrats to defect. Many of these unions have openly moved to supporting Republicans, and the Fraternal Order of the Police last month endorsed Trump. Some progressive cities, like Seattle, have booted police unions out of the labor councils, enabling Democrats to be pro-union but anti-police-unions. But still, stripping away union gains, particularly police control of disciplinary actions and other immunities, will not be easy for many Democrats. Already, some are hesitating and deferring bold promises for reform.
House Congressional Democrats did pass a bill (which quickly died in the Senate) attacking qualified immunity, a key protection for police and a barrier for reformers. Another measure might tie federal funding to the requirement that cities reform their police bargaining advantages. But the police unions would fight back furiously, counting on rural legislators in state houses, alarmed homeowners, and Congressional tough-on-crime lawmakers to protect their sweet deals. Will other unions be alarmed at these precedents and pressure Democratic allies to ease up?
There are several other areas where Democrats might face fights between those pushing for reforms (and survival in the recession) and union allies. One area is the arts, where union regulations and high pay could be on the block. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has said it will resume some pay to musicians and stagehands but only if there are labor concessions going forward.
Other areas are education reform in public schools and universities. Layoffs by seniority for public employee unions can mean newly hired and minority employees are the first to get pink slips. Then there are the survival struggles for media organizations, also heavily unionized.
It’s a classic bind, where legislators must decide between conflicting goods. One is the move to greater unionization, as a way of dealing with inequality and empowering workers. The other good is social justice, notably with hiring/firing policies and police accountability. The usual formula for such sticky situations — commissions, studies, tiny steps, pilot programs — may not be available, given the urgency from younger voters and street-savvy Progressives. Once again, Seattle will be at the frontlines, as “defunding the police” puts these issues squarely on the table.