Sanders calls for weakened police union power when shielding officers from accountability

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Sen. Bernie Sanders told "Axios on HBO" he'd support legislation to prevent police unions from negotiating benefits and disciplinary procedures that shield law enforcement officers from accountability.

Why it matters: Sanders is one of the most vocal supporters of organized labor in Congress. But powerful police unions have been a major obstacle to criminal justice reforms — and the killing of George Floyd has fueled a growing fight within the labor movement over the proper role of police unions.

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  • Over the years, they've established a web of benefits for their members that make it difficult to fire police officers who abuse their power.

  • Sanders and some other progressives are deeply uncomfortable about how police unions have been using their collective bargaining power.

What he's saying: "I am very strongly pro-worker, very strongly pro-union," Sanders said in an interview. "So when, police or anybody else are fighting for decent wages and working conditions I'm there.

  • "But what some of the police unions have done is taken it beyond that. And what they have done is try through a variety of legal means of saying, 'Hey, if a police officer does something illegal or worse' — I mean kill somebody — 'we're going to protect that person.'

  • "That's a different story than supporting people fighting for decent wages and benefits."

The bottom line: Asked whether he would support legislation to curtail the rights of police unions to bargain over issues that relate to the criminal justice process, Sanders said, "Yes."

The big picture: For progressive activists, the role of police unions came into sharper focus after Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

  • After that murder, which was captured on video, the then-president of the MPD's police union Bob Kroll wrote a letter to his membership in which he defended the officers fired, condemned the "terrorist movement" protesting the police and brought up Floyd's criminal record.

  • In some cases, instead of negotiating pay raises for police officers, cash-strapped cities have offered other "benefits" that include more generous appeals processes that help police officers who have been accused of abusing their power on the job.

Between the lines: Several labor leaders have urged AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations.

  • Trumka has refused to do so, and he defended police unions in an interview with "Axios on HBO" earlier this year.

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