Abolish ICE’s Union – The New Republic

The labor movement now finds itself at a crossroads on a
host of issues, from surviving the climate crisis to navigating the looming
specter of automation to out-maneuvering the most anti-labor presidential
administration and Department of Labor in generations. One thing that the
majority of the AFL-CIO’s sprawling membership seems to agree on, though, is
the need for workers to unite against the forces of discrimination and bigotry
that have created a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.

There’s some relevant precedent here: The armed forces are
not unionized. The legal reasoning is that a military labor action might
jeopardize national security, but from the standpoint of labor solidarity,
there’s abundant reason to see the enforcers of American imperial policy and
corporate privilege abroad as something other than true believers in worker
solidarity. By the same logic, a genuinely radical labor movement should group
police, prison guards, border patrol agents, and ICE agents in the same
category—even though they all now fall within AFGE’s organizing purview. They
are an occupying military force, sworn to serve only the interests of capital
and the state to the detriment of humanity. They protect and serve property,
not people, and the only solidarity they feel is with their own kind.  

It’s true that after the labor movement’s long tour on the
frontlines of the Cold War and its associated push to organize government
workers has left it with more than its share of conservative holdovers. And
some labor strategists contend that a successful mass movement needs all the
allies it can get, even if they are ardent enforcers of unjust laws. (This case
took another recent hit, however, when the New York police union organized
protests against the necessary and long overdue firing of NYPD officer Daniel
Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner in 2014.) But even if one brackets
such disputes, it seems clear that ICE and their border guard colleagues
present a special and urgent case running directly counter to the goals of
labor and civil-rights solidarity: Their entire professional raison d’etre is
to terrorize people of color. 

Ever since President Donald Trump’s border crackdown was
launched in earnest, calls to “abolish ICE!” have rung out at protest after
protest. The slogan has been emblazoned on T-shirts, and invoked at city
council meetings. The movement to abolish the agency gains greater traction
with every new report of the horrors at the border, and every photo of a
migrant child enduring unconscionable separation from family and being
subjected to illness and death.  

So why do ICE agents have a union, beyond the obvious (if
ever precarious) right of all workers to collectively bargain with their
employers? The question of ICE’s union representation strikes at the deeper
political goals of organized labor at a time when more than the right to
organize is under siege: The work that ICE and the US Border Patrol does every
day is undermining the humanitarian goals that must animate any serious labor
movement. The yawning contradiction may indeed be why so much of the labor community
has remained silent over representing ICE and the Border Patrol, even as we
continue to rally behind social democratic causes and cry out for justice:
perhaps if they pay it no public attention, it will somehow just go away.  

But repression never works that way. The historical record
shows not only that law enforcement unions are not merely a conceptual
stumbling block for reform-minded labor organizing, but a political one as
well, one that is traditionally and demonstrably conservative and right-wing.
As the Garner scandal has reminded us, police unions regularly protect
killer cops, and the head of the AFL-CIO-affiliated National Border Patrol
Council (NBPC) has called
for even more draconian immigration policies than Trump has. Members of the
NBPC and the National ICE Council have both publicly pushed for the Trump
administration to veer even further to the right, even as the vast majority of
AFL-CIO affiliates have decried the administration’s racist, xenophobic
agenda.

The NBPC itself seems uncomfortable with its own union
affiliation, and spends a lot of time justifying its role in the AFL-CIO to its
members. As In
These Times
first reported in 2018, the  remarkably combative FAQ on the
NBPC’s website handles the question in something of an extended huff, noting
that if the organization were to sever its affiliation with the AFL-CIO, it
would lose its assets and ability to represent its members. (Indeed, in that
scenario, AFGE national would step in, a possibility that the author seems to
regard with horror.) The anonymous author of the FAQ also cautions, a propos of
very little, that under direction of the national union, “agents will be used
as scapegoats for political correctness”—all while also deriding the strawman
specter of open borders and the prospect of returning California to Mexico
under a mythical immigrant-friendly federal government. The website also notes
that the NBPC only makes up a small minority within the AFL-CIO’s 11 million
members; this means, according to our beleaguered union interlocutor, that on
immigration questions, the union has to pursue a bore-from-within strategy:
“Although NBPC is opposed to the shameless promotion of illegal aliens by the
AFL-CIO, the NBPC must work through internal measures to change the position of
AFL-CIO or risk jeopardizing our status.”  

This is the sort of uneasy alliance that any competent
couples counselor would flag as a divorce-in-the-making. And it’s not as though
ICE and the Border Patrol would need to surrender all of their workplace
benefits in the custody negotiations.The Federal Law Enforcement Officers
Association (FLEOA), a nonprofit professional association, represents more than
26,000 federal law enforcement officers from more than 65 different agencies.
The FLEOA performs several common
functions of a union, including providing insurance, but crucially, is not
itself a labor union. If the ICE union were to be shown the door, they’d have a
perfectly good place to go—an option that the border guards’ union discusses in
its own FAQ, which
seems to arrive at no clear conclusion as to why they shouldn’t just ditch the
“open borders” pinkos and decamp to FLEOA.

In contrast to the NBPC, the ICE Council website does not appear to have been updated
since April 2019, and offers little more than a series of press releases. The
most recent ICE Council-related post on the AFGE website dates back to 2012, and is
just a dead link with “press-release-ice-blames-its-own-employees-policy-delays”
in the hyperlink. The group’s  Twitter
account boasts exactly two followers, and one 2018 tweet, asking Portland,
Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler to send police to secure an ICE facility during last
summer’s Occupy ICE movement. One can only assume that ICE officials are too
busy releasing inflammatory statements and caging migrant children to keep up a
robust web presence. 

Abolishing the ICE union would be no simple thing, and would
require AFGE and the AFL-CIO to truly get behind the idea to evict them from
their rolls. During the Red Scare, leftists were purged, and that period
remains a stain on the union movement’s history. But unlike that dark episode,
this is no mere moral panic. Nor is it a question of politics per se; it is,
rather, a matter of morality. Now that we have a chance to make a very
different kind of change that will also affect future generations of workers,
we must not falter. 

At a recent event celebrating the release of a new book from
venerable labor reporter Steven Greenhouse, I asked how the labor movement can
remain true to its values when right-wing conservative police, prison guards,
and ICE unions are all still represented within the AFL-CIO. The answer I got
was along the lines of, Well, they’ve democratically voted to be represented
by these unions, so decertification isn’t really an option
. Greenhouse is
absolutely right, on procedural grounds: Decertification is voted on by the
membership itself, so if ICE wants to keep its union, the current rules are on
its side. That means the ball is in the labor movement’s court. 

An older gent with a formidable white mustache pulled me
aside afterwards and told me a story about how local police in New Hampshire
had tugged on the ears of their Republican pals and managed to defeat a
particularly odious right-to-work bill in the state senate. The moral here
seemed to be that while these unions aren’t everyone’s favorite, they can serve
a purpose. 

But such appeals ignore the considerable moral cost entailed
in such provisional tradeoffs. The friend of our enemy is still our enemy. The
idea that we must pull together with every union member out there for the sake
of the greater good becomes far less compelling in the face of the state
violence—and even outright murder—committed at the hands of these nominal labor
movement allies. As their own unions have made clear, ICE and Border Patrol
agents are not interested in solidarity. Rather, they’re modern-day Pinkertons,
and as such, they deserve the same pariah status that America’s first wave of
industrial labor leaders reserved for the company strikebreakers and gun thugs
of our first Gilded Age.