Nicole Grant, the King County Labor Council's Executive Secretary-Treasurer, sat down with us recently to talk about the labor movement and police unions. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ansel Herz: The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents about 1,200 rank-and-file Seattle cops, is the focus of a lot of suspicion and activism among Black Lives Matter activists. The Block the Bunker group is calling for the local police union's disbandment. How did we get here and what should be done about this?
Nicole Grant: I think it’s an important question because of what the labor movement is: a collective movement of working class people. It's one of the forces in society that has the power to fight income inequality and create economic opportunities for workers—and when you say workers, that means people of color, women, and all people who are oppressed.
So issues of racism are things we’re always aware of and fighting against, as the labor movement.
Condemning the police killings that have happened all of over our country is something that the labor movement has done and needs to do more.
When it comes to dissolving or breaking up a police union or attacks on the collective bargaining process—that's not the first place I go, in terms of the solutions to racist violence. Collective bargaining, especially public sector bargaining, is a tool to fight racism. If you look at what municipal unions are doing, a lot of what they do is protecting black workers from job discrimination. Personally, I spend time defending workers facing discrimination.
For activists, I don't think breaking up unions is the first place they would go, either. But they might say that SPOG has not been progressive on racial issues. The union has, for example, attacked the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative as some kind of communist plot. Perhaps that’s why people take that step of segregating them in some sense. They’re not like teachers unions, they’re not like other municipal unions.
The Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed Trump. The AFL-CIO has endorsed Clinton. So that’s an example of police unions, nationally, setting themselves apart politically. But ways they are similar are, for example, they fight for family health insurance. SPOG fights for family health insurance.
All unions fight for workplace safety. SPOG does that too. If there’s violence going down in the city, someone has to deal with it. If there’s bad domestic violence, it’s a cop who has to go break it up. That’s scary and dangerous work. But I can relate, a little bit, as an electrician, because that’s dangerous work too. One of my colleagues—she died. She was electrocuted. That was one of the main things that activated me as a union leader, like, “Oh shit, we have to stay together." I can see how that happens inside of SPOG. It’s hard and it’s tense and people are like, "We have to stick together or we’re gonna die."
The difference is that the safety of you as an electrician doesn’t implicate the civil rights of somebody else.
It doesn't. That’s what it really boils down to. One of the central aspects of Seattle’s civil rights movement has been to fight racism in policing. So there’s an added civil rights element that’s important. Because we want to have a police department that has turned the corner from the actions that brought the consent decree and federal investigation.
SPOG is an affiliate of the labor council. So, they’re my members. Changes are going to be more successful from buy-in from the officers. Not everybody has the patience to do a process where they meet these people where they’re at. But I think to build real cultural change, change that the officers take to heart, is going to be an inside game.
Look, this is the most heartfelt and important thing I’m going to say about policing, police unions, and the labor movement: Being a part of something bigger, which SPOG is doing more of—like when SPOG supported secure scheduling, and the new president Kevin Stuckey testified in favor of it [45:11 mark at this link]—that’s the kind of stuff that’s going to bring them out of isolation.
I think being part of the labor community and not being so specific to their own issues is important. It’s happening more with officers who start their careers today, who have different ideas. There’s a role for the labor movement to play that’s special. The relationship around workplace issues is authentic, and this is a way for police to show solidarity with low wage workers, workers of color on specific policy issues.
Instead of only being oriented around their own interests—is that what you’re saying?
Instead of being isolated. I think isolating police unions makes it harder to move forward. Engaging with them makes it easier.
Do you know why Kevin Stuckey took that step of testifying for secure scheduling? That surprised a lot of people.
Kevin’s testimony was absolutely his own. Have you talked to him?
I’ve seen him at events. But he’s also walked away from me when I've tried to interview him, and he won’t return my calls.
I’ve talked to him about his life story—"Why did you become a police officer? Why’d you join a police union?" It was because of his experiences in New York City with poverty and having been helped, as a child, by police in ways that touched him and gave him a lifelong commitment to do work that he believes in. So he got up there to testify in favor of secure scheduling and it was totally in his own voice. They weren't the arguments I have made: It was basically that we want to have a society where people can be successful, and it’s important for people to be able spend time with their families. And I know Kevin is a Baptist and religious, and I know that’s the point of view he was coming from. It was great of him because there might have been some people on the council who responded to that. And it passed unanimously.
I understand what you’re saying about buy-in. This is basically the same thing we’ve heard from the mayor, who’s told me that he needs to find a way to bring this police union along. But we're five years into the consent decree. If you look at SPOG's record, besides this one piece of testimony on secure scheduling, it's difficult to point to the actions they've taken to advance equity or racial justice. And since Ron Smith’s resignation—after trying to blame the Dallas police killings on a "minority movement" in this really offensive way—we’ve seen a leadership shake-up. Kevin Stuckey’s taken his place, but we see now that Rich O’Neill is taking a more active role too.
Can I say something about that? As the first woman leader of the King County Labor Council, if somebody said Nicole’s not really in charge and let’s talk about who’s really in charge, I would push back against that. I would be like, 'No, that’s bullshit.' I am the elected leader of this organization. And I fight day and night and have a lot of influence in our movement.
I’ve heard that before: "Oh, is the empowered black leader of SPOG really in charge?" I’m like, 'Yes, he’s the principal officer of that union. He’s responsible. He’s accountable.' I’m hopeful that Kevin’s leadership is going to be good.
Do you think it will mark a stronger shift than we’ve seen?
Yes, I do. We have an opportunity. There’s going to be a push and pull to be successful. Part of it is being an ally to the police as workers, and saying, "I believe in your rights to bargain collectively." By having a real ally on real issues, there’s also an opportunity say, "Can we have conversations and action on the issues that are going to move us forward?"
Why do you think the SPOG membership rejected the city's contract offer?
I don’t have a ton of insight about that. It’s not insane for workers to vote down the first contract proposal.
What was your reaction to the federal judge’s comments about how he would steamroll over the police union if they held out in contract talks and blocked long-delayed civil rights reforms?
I talked to Kevin Stuckey about that. What I got from that conversation is that he feels there’s been a false narrative that SPOG would try to hold up the consent decree for more money.
That’s what we’ve heard explicitly from Rich O’Neill in the past. That if you change anything, the union will ask for more money.
Kevin pushed back against that analysis with me. He said we accept the consent decree and reform. But that it is bargainable. And they want to bargain it. And I think that buy-in, if it is formally bargained and ratified by officers, is actually a bigger win for civil rights because it shows involvement and ownership from the people that are actually involved.