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Giving police officers a voice within police organizations raised vexing questions. In many nations, police officers were to “police by mutual consent” with the public but often did not experience mutual confidence between senior officers and the rank and file. They needed a satisfactory outlet for their grievances, an advocate to protect their interests, and input into their occupation. A union could hinder arbitrary power from above, but authorities worried that unions undermined the organization. However, officers without an authorized union worked at the mercy of superior authorities and were more prone to strike.
The earliest organizing efforts in nineteenth-century Europe, America, and Australia aimed not only at pay, pensions, and regular days off, but also at the “right to confer.” They insisted that officers had the right to be consulted by police authorities on policy and conditions of service. Much of western Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia moved toward legalizing police unions during the early twentieth century. However, they remained prohibited in Britain and America. World War One put the police under immense economic and work stress, ending in strikes in Cape Town, London, Liverpool, and Boston. After 2 years with strikes, the British government responded by creating a police federation and with a comprehensive Police Act (1919). The United States went in the opposite direction, banning unions into the 1950s. American police had to rely on mutual aid and fraternal organizations to protect their interests. This adversarial attitude toward police unions persisted well after the unions began to be legalized after World War Two.
The Civil Rights era revived existing and new police unions in response to calls for reform and integration. Police union rights were linked to broader organizing rights. While still concerned with pay and conditions, unions began lobbying policy makers to improve internal conditions and address external issues. They used a variety of strategies, both old and modern. “Work to rule” and slowdowns continued. Media campaigns won over public and political support. This created concerns that unions were threatening police political neutrality, particularly after scandals where police unions and party leaders made secret deals promising support in return for specific policies. Recently, more positive directions for police unions included working for affirmative action across the African continent, and pioneering shared leadership programs in the United States. Challenges for police unions persisted. They earned a reputation for being reactionary and inflexible, though unions took steps toward cooperating in reforms and community issues in constructive ways. Research on police unions is sparse, and mostly focuses on recent decades. Scholars tend to have pessimistic assessments, but lately have explored linkages between workplace rights and civil rights. The picture, however, remains incomplete.
Labor unions developed to protect basic worker rights such as fair pay, safe work conditions, and the right to confer, as well as address concerns unique to each occupation. While no universal model of police union existed, they typically focused on (1) pay, pensions, and allowances, (2) conditions of service, including discipline and promotion, (3) the right to confer, and (4) legal reforms and policies. Police officers first joined together not just for improved pay but also to end the tyranny of superior officers and authorities who refused to listen to them. The earliest unions already focused on the need to replace arbitrary power and corruption with fair standards and procedures for promotion and discipline. Always uncomfortable about the idea of the police “downing tools,” they typically adopted “no strike” policies only abandoned under acute stress. World War One sparked police strikes in cities where police officers were overwhelmed by war-time inflation, and police unions were banned. In the twentieth century, police forces applied themselves to becoming a profession. Unions became more like white-collar associations that faced the similar challenge of trying to be professional but also address typical union concerns. Lobbying became more central after World War Two as police forces responded to Civil Rights movements and demands for police reform and integration. Forces slowly became more diverse with more women and minorities, yet minority groups continued to see a need for their own advocacy groups. Some unions became highly political, creating challenges for police organizations that insisted that they were politically impartial. These changes in police unions reflected changes in police officers themselves; nineteenth-century working-class policemen in strictly regimented departments gradually became in the twentieth century better educated and more diverse men and women in more complex, though still hierarchical, organizations.
Every police union had its own trajectory. They were diverse in size, goals, and power, over time and space. Police forces could have unions, but many had federations, associations, guilds, fraternal organizations, or societies that might carry out similar functions as a union and had greater or lesser authority depending on local conditions. Groups could be local, national, or international. Multiple groups coexisted. What kind of organization existed depended on laws and circumstances. For simplicity’s sake, the terms “police union” and “union” will be used except when a specific group is mentioned. Australian, Dutch, French, and Scandinavian police unions were legal throughout the twentieth century but varied in size and style. When police officers were not allowed to unionize, they often set up societies and clubs. In 1918, Cape Town police had a committee that organized a successful strike, and in 1919, the Boston Social Club transformed itself into the Boston Police Union. After 1919, British police could not join unions, particularly not the National Union of Police and Prison Officers; its official replacement, the Police Federation, attained negotiation powers in the late 1940s. New Zealand followed a similar path, attempting to unionize and ending up instead with an official Police Association in 1935. In the United States, the Fraternal Order of Police was allowed while police unions and collective bargaining remained illegal until the 1960s. Today, US unions are highly local, Australia has state unions, and the Republic of South Africa has two national unions. Unions might be associated with a national federation or association, or remain unaffiliated. Only recently did police officers attempt to set up unions in authoritarian nations or nations transitioning from dictatorships to more open regimes, such as in Argentina and Swaziland where such unions were declared illegal. In recent decades, unions affiliated directly or indirectly with the International Council of Police Representative Associations (ICPRA), formed in 1996 to promote professional standards and police civil rights.
The key function of these unions was to give a voice to the rank and file who often felt they had no control within their occupation. Strains existed between upper and lower ranks over promotion and discipline, which could seem arbitrary and corrupt. Relations between unions and police authorities could be confrontational, friendly, or anywhere in between, affecting cooperation and communication. At the very least, unions provided a safety valve where officers could air grievances and blow off steam. Unions generally had a decent record on improving pay and protecting gains, though they were still at the mercy of economic downturns. They fought to create and protect fair procedures for promotion and discipline. They provided support during disciplinary cases, varying from advice to legal services. However, a simple idea such as improving conditions for senior patrol officers demonstrated how entangled issues could become. Suggesting rewards such as “master patrol officer” or favorable transfers created new problems balancing seniority, pay equity, and education. Unions sometimes got bewildered over how to improve education standards and attract quality recruits without undermining the pay and status of older officers. As unions got stronger in recent decades, police authorities and the public raised concerns that they had become too insular, defensive, and resistant to change. On the other hand, examples of dynamic, constructive unions existed. The question is whether this is the direction for the future or a few exceptions.
Most unions included the lowest two or three ranks so they represented the majority of, but not all, police officers. Higher ranks had their own organizations. Some unions included retired officers and a few included civilian staff. The New Zealand Police Association was unusual in including civilian staff and all ranks except the very highest. Where legal, joining the union was fairly automatic. Where official bodies existed, such as the Police Federation of England and Wales, joining the police meant joining the Federation. How active members were depended on how useful they considered their union to be. Alongside unions, societies existed to represent specific groups. Police authorities banned or tolerated them depending on their behavior and local attitudes. Initially, these tended to be linked to religion, such as Catholic or Protestant associations which could get themselves into trouble if they became too fractious. As forces diversified in the twentieth century, women’s and ethnic minority associations appeared, and more recently, groups for gay police officers. Religious groups persisted, but with greater variety. These organizations paralleled unions and often prodded them to address entrenched sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. Their relationships with both police forces and police unions could be acrimonious given often defensive police attitudes.
The legal status of unions depended on national and local laws. Many western nations authorized police unions early in the twentieth century. Police unions in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and parts of Australia were permitted before World War One. French police unions began in 1905, to be legalized in 1926. Australian unions formed state by state until every region had one in 1945, the same year that the Police Federation of Australia and New Zealand was formed. German police unions formed during World War One and were active under the Weimar government, only to be shut down under the Nazis. Some nations barred unions but allowed “federations” or “guilds” that fulfilled similar or reduced roles. After police strikes in 1919, police unions were banned in Britain and America. The British set up the Police Federation of England and Wales while in America, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) provided a limited alternative. Despite deep antagonism from police chiefs who viewed unions as sources of corruption, tiny unions persisted, some affiliated with the FOP or the National Conference of Police Associations. Finally, American police unions were legalized in the 1960s though not all gained collective bargaining rights. They remained local and diverse, similar to their police forces, with most acting independently to protect local interests. Unlike the older unions in Europe and Australia, American unions tended to be more reactionary and antireform. To the north, provincial Canadian police had unions with collective bargaining rights, but as recently as 1999, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not have the right to unionize. Instead, they had official staff relations representation which loosely resembled the British Federation but without its authority. Finally, unions appeared in emerging democracies such as the Republic of South Africa. The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) formed in 1989, and it continued to focus on civil rights issues both at home and across the continent. The South African Police Union was more moderate and took an apolitical approach. In 2003, two Argentine police groups asked the International Labour Organization (ILO) for support to address poor working conditions and tyrannical superior officers. However, the ILO limited the rights of police officers to unionize if such unions were banned by national law and did not back them (Marks and Fleming 2006). Attempts by Swaziland police to unionize met similar barriers. Police authorities continued to argue that unions undercut their authority, but forces with a long history of legal unions had better morale and less insubordination than forces without unions.
Early Unions And Police Strikes
The first police unions appeared in the later nineteenth century and their forms roughly reflected unionism generally. Early efforts focused on pay and conditions including training, uniforms, and work shifts, and internal questions such as discipline, tyrannical bosses, and basic fairness. They dealt with local and sometimes national governments since changes could require new laws. In areas without unions, mutual aid societies, such as the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (1892), and rank-and-file newspapers, such as Britain’s Police Review and Parade Gossip (1893), provided police forums. With or without a union, police officers rarely supported the idea of striking, so other tactics had to be explored. Early actions included petitioning authorities, “work-to-rule” protests, and refusals to parade. An early protest in 1853 Manchester, where about half the force resigned over low pay, had shock value but had clear strategic flaws. More commonly, officers staged what amounted to “sit-down” strikes, refusing to leave the station until their grievances were heard. These could be effective though risky. London officers staged a protest demanding pensions in 1890. The 1890 Police Act did give police officers pensions, but protest leaders and 39 protesters were dismissed (Allen 1958). By the early 1900s, informal efforts became unions, police officers learning that unions were more likely to be taken seriously. If the unions were recognized, actions that might threaten dismissal were unlikely to be required. However, areas that resisted police unions left police officers with few useful options to get their voices heard.
The most prominent time of police strikes was during and immediately after World War One when war-time responsibilities and inflation put police officers under severe stress. The police officers resorted to strikes as a last resort after months of having their concerns ignored. Bad pay was a factor but abuse of power as well. None had recognized unions. The 1918 strikes in London and Cape Town, South Africa, had an advantage of taking place during the war, making governments eager to resolve the crises quickly. In January 1918, white policemen in Cape Town organized a strike over pay, understaffing, and overwork after months of being ignored by the Minister of Justice. Organized by a committee, a small group of younger, single officers struck, both protecting married men and keeping enough men on duty to cover beats. The strikers were imprisoned, provoking more men to strike. Eventually 100 out of 500 men struck, but order continued. The public sympathized with the strikers who acted with restraint, and at least in part after learning that patrolmen’s pay had eroded so much that they had to live in “respectable” colored neighborhoods (Nasson 1992). The strike lasted 2 weeks when all the men returned to duty and their war bonuses were increased. In 1919, a commission was formed to improve their conditions of service. In August 1918, the London Metropolitan and City of London Police also went on strike. The strike began for similar reasons, with the addition of concerns over “victimization,” and after being similarly ignored. The London police, however, had an unrecognized union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO), and the firing of a union member sparked the strike. Effectively both forces went out, yet order did not break down. The government settled within a week, with police commissioners forced to admit ignorance of the dire circumstances of their own men and the public perceiving the police as having just grievances. Similar to Cape Town, no men were fired, pay and war bonuses increased, and a commission was called to examine police conditions. These two strikes ended successfully for the police officers. The war forced governments fearful of Bolshevism to respond quickly, and the quiet streets kept the public’s support.
By 1919, with governments no longer constrained by war, strikes became less successful and more violent. Victory in the 1918 London strike spread NUPPO branches throughout Britain. Police officers elected union members to the Desborough Committee, the commission on police pay and conditions. However, union leadership made excessive demands, forgetting that with war over, the government had no reason to bend. While many British police were content with improved pay and willing to hear the Desborough Committee’s recommendations, Liverpool police feared entrenched favoritism and internal corruption which persisted unabated. In August 1919, half the force went on strike, leading to 3 days of rioting. Nearly 1,000 strikers were dismissed. The NUPPO was suppressed and membership declared illegal. While the Liverpool strike failed, it did result in important additions to the 1919 Police Act regarding conditions of service, promotion, and training. At the same time, Boston policemen were arguing with their mayor over pay and conditions, and getting nowhere. Inspired by the English strikes, they formed a union recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Other American forces took similar actions. In September 1919, the Boston Police Commissioner banned their union, leading to a strike remarkably similar to Liverpool. After rioting and looting, over 1,000 strikers were dismissed. President Wilson condemned the strike as a “crime against civilization” (Russell 1975). Both the Liverpool and Boston strikes turned the public against police unions because of the violence. However, British and American authorities responded to the strikes quite differently. The Boston strike seemed to confirm US police chiefs’ worst fears of Bolshevism infiltrating the police and left them wholly against police unions for decades. Other police forces that had been forming unions gave up the idea. Britain created the Police Federation, which for all its weaknesses recognized that officers needed representation and an outlet for grievances.
The 1918–1919 strikes highlighted a central question of police unions – police officers demanding the right to confer and police authorities fearing that unions undermined their authority. In the United States particularly, police chiefs adamantly opposed any kind of police unions. They argued that public servants could not be linked to outside authority, unions undermined discipline, and unions obstructed change. Yet ironically, police officers barred from organizing were more likely to strike while unionized officers were more willing to negotiate. The reality was that police officers were going to organize, so allowing them to organize openly and legally was a better choice. By banning police unions and portraying them as threats, US police forces may have created an acrimonious relationship that continued to echo after unions were legalized in the 1960s. Police authorities were correct to worry that unions threatened their personal discretion. Unions were more likely to be illegal in nations that stressed a strong, top-down management style of policing. Police officers organized out of a sense of powerlessness against arbitrary superior officers and worked to create due process. Later unions often became reactionary to protect these gains and remained fearful of arbitrary authority.
Unions And The Professional Police
During the twentieth century, police forces focused on earning recognition as a profession despite a lack of clear direction. Policing did not require a professional degree, forces often lacked mutual standards, and transferring between forces was difficult. The role of police unions in this shift remained ambiguous. Some maintained a union identity while others became more like professional associations. When tangible gains such as pay were more secure, the status of being professional could be appealing. Unions often shared the confusion over their identity, wanting to be perceived as professional organizations yet with the collective bargaining powers of unions. More important than semantics, the rank and file argued that they had positive contributions to make to policy and service conditions. In Europe and Australia, police unions were included in these deliberations while in the United States, typically they were not. When the Civil Rights era brought police forces under criticism, the union model revitalized and unions became more assertive. Nevertheless, professionalism remained important, stressing efficiency and high standards.
In the 1960s, police unionism surged, with existing unions becoming more active and new unions forming, particularly in the United States. But unions gained a reputation as reactionary and defensive, seeing calls for reform as attacks on their profession. They viewed change as an admission of failure, even as giving in to disorderly and rebellious protestors. The 1960s and 1970s were a low point for American and British unions, made up largely of white, conservative men who not only resisted reform but framed their refusals to diversify as defending their rights. The Fraternal Order of Police opposed affirmative action, requiring the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League to protect black officers. In Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1970s, the two groups filed lawsuits and countersuits over promotion and job assignment issues. After 3 years of stalemate, all sides agreed on a policy of treating all officers on an equal basis (Lewis 1989). Bringing women into police forces presented unions not only with challenges to their masculine image, but more importantly, unions feared that women could be used as an excuse to erode pay gains. Most unions opposed women though some supported equal pay for women to protect the pay of men. The domination of police unions by white men explained the importance of minority organizations to protect the interests of minority officers and to prod the majority toward fairer policies.
Clearly, police unions deserved many of the complaints that they blocked innovations and calls for change. From the unions’ perspective, they used collective bargaining and similar tools to protect hard-won gains. From outside and from above, they looked intransigent and outdated. In the 1970s, some US unions supported education incentive plans, but many opposed them for violating prized “equal pay for equal work” standards. Overall, US unions focused more on pay issues and less on the larger picture that a better education was better for policing (Juris and Feuille 1973). Union resorted to denying all problems in response to criticism for ineffectiveness, discrimination, or corruption. The standard approach was to launch public relations campaigns, present the “bad apple” idea, and even inhibit investigations. If problems were found, unions insisted that they be dealt with by the police. The London Metropolitan Police refused to acknowledge that they had problems with racism despite numerous commissions, investigations, and court judgments in the 1970s and 1980s. Only in 1999 when the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report accused them of “institutional racism” did the force admit that they needed to make changes. Support or opposition to change tended to rest on how successfully the rank and file was included in discussions. Both civilian reformers and superior officers could be patronizing and rude to police officers, viewing them as poorly educated and unable to make thoughtful decisions. When unions responded defensively, that confirmed the stereotype and perpetuated the problem.
Police unions became acutely worried whenever civilians got too close to policing’s internal affairs. Replacing police officers with civilian staff could look like efficiency to reformers but like diluting the work force and a cost-cutting measure to police officers. The greatest threat was civilian review boards which sprang up in the 1970s in response to scandals as well as civilian activism. Unions loudly objected to civilian boards, seeing them as ignorant nuisances. The Police Association in Victoria, Australia, managed to shut down a Police Complaints Authority in the 1980s, and police unions in the United States fought hard against ombudsmen and civilian boards (Finnane 2008). Nevertheless, civilian review spread and unions had to adjust. Community policing programs, where civilians augmented the police, could also be problematic when local police forces were not adequately included. On one side, police unions resisted involving the community, equating such ideas with budget cuts and interference. On the other hand, civilians lacked creativity in including the police as partners in community policing (Sklansky and Marks 2008). Where police unions were included in setting up community policing programs, police fears of outside intrusions could be allayed. Chicago incorporated key terms regarding management and pay into its program. The program was a success and the local FOP endorsed it (Walker 2008). Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, set up a police shared leadership program in cooperation with the police union, a hint of what was possible when communications were open.
Police unions developed strategies to get their views across without disrupting order and without big strikes. These fell into four categories of on-duty action, off-duty action, media, and lobbying with two basic goals of affecting contract negotiations and government policy. Sometimes, a specific issue related to a particular incident provoked union action, such as when Pittsburgh police officers caught the “blue flu” to protest how the force handled transferring white and black officers in and out of inner-city neighborhoods in April 1970 (Juris and Feuille 1973). Work actions such as sick-outs and mass car servicing were planned not to endanger the public. Other options were “go-slows” and work-to-rule campaigns. Traffic ticket slowdowns reminded authorities that the police provided important revenue and were popular with the public. Detroit staged one in 1967 and Brisbane, Australia, in 1976, and both made their point quickly. Following a shift by trade unions generally, police officers began using brief 1or 2-day strikes designed to force negotiations or policies. In May 1970, Rochester police staged an 8-h strike which resulted in negotiations resuming though a similar strike in Milwaukee in January 1971 failed in part due to public apathy (Juris and Feuille 1973; Fleming and Lafferty 2001). But more short strikes worked than failed, and they continued into the twenty-first century. Brazilian police in 2001, Dutch police in 2007, and Slovenian police in 2010, all staged short strikes over pay. The threat of major walkouts remained if police authorities misread their officers. In 1969, Montreal police and firefighters struck over pay but also over job hazards created by separatist terrorists resulting in looting, bank robberies, and violence. Unions preferred not to strike, but kept the option in reserve.
Off-duty union efforts ranged from public meetings and marches to letter-writing and media campaigns. When Dutch police were unhappy with pay negotiations in 2007, for example, thousands of off-duty officers staged noisy protests outside the Ministry of the Interior (Berry et al. 2008). Such efforts could work though could take patience to bring results. In the 1950s, the New York City Police Benevolent Association (PBA) evolved into a union role through a variety of media and legal actions. In 1958, when the mayor refused to negotiate a grievance procedure, the PBA published an “Open Letter to the Mayor of the City of New York” as a newspaper advertisement. They petitioned the city Department of Labor and finally appealed to the US Supreme Court. The PBA lost their appeal but proved to be tough advocates. In 1961, New York established a police grievance system. The political environment shaped what a union could expect. The 1950s New York Police operated in a city hostile to unions, where the mere threat that a union might be forming convinced the city to improve conditions (Levi 1977).
In theory, most police forces declared themselves to be politically neutral. Despite this, increasingly police unions took part in the political campaigns of candidates or parties with policies favorable to the police. Issues included improving police numbers, modernizing equipment, and reforming laws. This could be positive or negative on numerous levels with unions protecting their interests, working for reforms, and risking conflict of interest. An early example of a campaign came when the Police Review helped lobby Parliament to give the police 1 rest day in seven which resulted in the Police (Weekly Rest Day) Act in 1910. After World War Two, unions focused on getting sympathetic candidates elected at the local and national levels. They risked their apolitical reputations despite frequent protestations that their actions were impartial. Dutch unions proved good at campaigning without losing respect, but Australian unions made some embarrassing miscalculations. In 1996, the Queensland Police Union was determined to unseat the local Labor government and campaigned against them successfully in a byelection. However, a “memorandum of understanding” between the union and opposition leaders came to light, promising policies favorable to the police. This provoked outrage and damaged the image of the union which was forced to reconsider both its strategies and its democratic values (Finnane 2008). Unions did not necessarily commit to one party. In the late 1970s, the British Police Federation conducted a law and order campaign that matched the policies of the Thatcher administration. However, by the 1990s, the Federation rebuked the Conservatives for saying that the police’s primary aim was fighting crime, insisting that their first priority was protecting life and preventing crime (Berry et al. 2008). Unions continued to grapple with their declared political neutrality, yet with widespread involvement in political lobbying.
Openly political police unions existed, typically with multiple unions for police officers to choose from based on ideology. These could be motivated by one idea, such as POPCRU which spotlighted civil rights. The French police had competing unions aligned with local and national political parties. Since the 1970s, French governments consulted with unions over reform and policy, causing many police officers to wonder if their unions had become just another factor in corruption and favoritism problems. Then again, French police unions spoke out against police abuses of power, and supported creative reforms and modernized equipment (Horton 1995). They provide an alternate model to the apolitical one that could often be unrealistic. However, becoming too political had its own dangers. In India, ruling elites tended to use police as an arm of their governments, and allowed police abuses of power. In the 1980s, the police union in Gujarat turned the tables, becoming too powerful and blackmailing the local government. The union threatened not to police during confrontational annual holidays unless its demands were met. In 1988, the government refused to be coerced. The union called a strike, but its leaders were quickly dismissed and the union disbanded. Only in 2006 did Indian courts allow the union to reorganize. However, the problematic relationship between governments and police remained unresolved (Joshi 2000; Aggarwal 1988).
Police unions remained divided over the advantages of local organizations versus a more national focus. American unions often operated in isolation from each other while Scandinavian police unions supported nationalizing. Nevertheless, increasingly unions at least talked to each other, sharing information on pay and conditions to help with negotiations and working to improve professional standards. In 1996, acknowledging an increasingly global society, the International Council of Police Representative Associations (ICPRA) was founded with momentum from the Canadian Police Association. Its basic goals reflected a persistence of nineteenth-century concerns – open communication, consistent and fair procedures, proper training and equipment, political neutrality, and the right to freedom of association. Gaining full civil rights for police officers remained an issue; many police officers could not vote in the nineteenth century and many nations denied them suffrage in the twenty-first century. Their objectives included expanding collective bargaining and helping police forces establish their own associations. Overall, their agenda was practical, including improving qualifications of officers, standards of police methods, and professionalism. In 2012, ICRA was helping the Swaziland Police’s fight to unionize and supporting Guardia Civil to gain rights being limited by the Spanish government. Membership was limited to national police associations, in part to encourage local unions to work together. Members in 2012 included Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the Fraternal Order of Police, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Denmark, and the European Confederation of Police. The two Republic of South Africa unions were the only ones from Africa. No members came from Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia. However, IPRCA and other organizations were supporting efforts in those areas to unionize police forces.
Historiography And Future Directions
The historiography of police unions is unexpectedly thin. Official publications, such as the American Police Unions and Other Police Organizations, issued in 1919 and reissued in 1944, took a negative view of police unions as undermining policing’s core values. With the exception of V.L. Allen’s “The National Union of Police and Prison Officers” in 1958, the first substantial scholarship came out in the 1970s. Robert Reiner’s sociological study, The BlueCoated Worker, was based on interviews of British police officers, including their views on the Federation and police unions. In the United States, studies such as Hervey Juris and Peter Feuille’s Police Unionism explored unions from the perspective of industrial relations and collective bargaining. Only in the 1990s and 2000s did historians begin focusing on police unions, notably Mark Finnane’s When Police Unionise on Australia. Books on police strikes were more common but they did not focus on unions and they tended to be for a popular audience, such as Francis Russell’s A City in Terror (1975) on the Boston strike which focused largely on Calvin Coolidge. Numerous articles came out, but they tended to focus on contemporary issues rather than history, with a few exceptions such as Nasson’s 1992 article on the 1918 police strike in Cape Town. Articles on Swedish and Belgian police unions were not readily accessible to English readers. Unions were covered as part of larger works but typically only for a few pages. A large gap in the scholarship exists for history focused specifically on police unions.
Scholars of police unions can roughly be divided into pessimists, pragmatists, and optimists. Pessimists viewed unions as reactionary, conservative, and undermining authority. Most historians tended to take this stance, including many US police historians as well as sociologist Robert Reiner. Recently, pragmatists, notably Mark Finnane and Samuel Walker, reminded readers that the first priority of unions was to serve their members. The optimists were a new group, arguing that unions could move the police out of stale models and cooperate with the community in constructive ways. In 2006, many police scholars came together at an international, interdisciplinary conference on “Police Reform from the Bottom Up” at the University of California, Berkeley. It resulted in special issues of Policing & Society (March 2008) and Police Practice and Research (May 2008) which focused on ways that police unions could participate in reform, as well as be obstacles to such a role. The authors made an effort to move away from the dominant pessimistic view and explore more nuanced interpretations of police unions, as well as explore why the negative view of unions existed. Even here, though, the articles focused more on recent decades than on before the 1960s.
Union scholarship was often cast as a strugglefor control between police authorities and the rank and file. One question explored was whether police unions weakened or strengthened police forces. They could hurt forces by undermining discipline or help them by breaking down a military mentality. More pessimistic historians argued that police unions became part of the military mentality, resisting civilian oversight and outside investigation. They pointed out the reactionary and insular behavior of unions against diversity and innovation. However, scholars remained uncertain on whether unions challenged top-down control or reinforced it (Marks and Sklansky 2008). In 1996, a study found that police officers were more satisfied with their jobs and had a better relationship with the public with less heavy-handed management, and that unionized officers reported better community relations. They concluded that shedding the “top-down” approach could be a good idea for both the police and the public (Magenau and Hunt 1996). For all their flaws, Samuel Walker pointed out the importance of unions in shared governance and the move away from authoritarian models of policing in America (Walker 2008). The tendency to view police unions negatively needed to be corrected and contextualized. Mark Finnane was also less epic in his expectations of police unions either for good or evil. Their primary task was to look out for their members’ pay and pensions, and to be advocates in discipline and promotion cases.
In the 2000s, a democratic theory of police unions was advanced which remains controversial. Monique Marks and Jenny Fleming favored the argument that police unions needed to shift from the military model to a modern civilian, democratic model, and become agents of positive change. Fleming especially argued that police unions helped break down the militaristic attributes of police culture. Their idea was that unions helped police officers understand the importance of workplace democracy and so became willing to protect democracy more generally. Unions provided rights such as association, free speech, and voting, and supported work rights like collective bargaining, fair pay, and impartial discipline. Police officers who valued their own rights would protect the rights of others. The theory leaned on examples from the developing world, particularly POPCRU in the Republic of South Africa. Its applications tended to be more for recent and future developments. Dutch and Swedish police unions supported POPCRU in the 1990s, and in 2007, POPCRU began supporting Swaziland and Mauritian police officers working to unionize. Similarly, police unions from Australia and New Zealand worked with police associations in the Cook Island, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji (Marks and Fleming 2006). Whether unions helped police officers link workplace rights to broader human rights historically will require additional scholarship.
More research remains to be done on police union history to build a more complete picture of their role in police history. Clearly police officers will organize regardless of its legality. Why parts of Europe and Australia were comfortable giving the police rank and file a voice while Britain and the United States resisted is a comparison requiring further investigation. Australia suggests that having a long history of legal unions did not necessarily make a difference in community relations and openness to innovation and reform, but within Australia, this varied from state to state. American forces condemned unions for so long that they may have created the pent-up frustrations that burst out in the 1970s. However messy unions could be, having police unions decreased acrimony and improved morale. What is perhaps most startling is that the early concerns of police unions from the nineteenth century share so much with the 2004 goals of the International Council of Police Representative Associations. Unions continue to complain about poor relations with their superiors, just like unions in the nineteenth century. The central concern remains the right to confer.
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