Labor Notes, May 1999
Labor Joins Protest Over New York Police Killing
by Michael Letwin, President
Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325
The New York labor movement played a surprisingly prominent role in protests in late March over the February 1 police shooting of Amadou Diallo. Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, died in a hail of 41 bullets fired by four white police officers.
Nearly 1,200 people were arrested during two weeks of daily protests outside New York’s police headquarters.
The mass civil disobedience was initiated by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was soon joined by a broad range of arrestees, including former New York Mayor David Dinkins, members of the African-American and Latino community, and contingents mobilized by such organizations as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
The involvement of much of the mainstream labor movement represented something of a change, since most New York labor leaders have not traditionally spoken out against police abuse. Moreover, most either supported or failed to oppose the 1997 reelection of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has strongly defended his police department in this and other recent brutality cases.
Union leaders arrested in the Diallo protests included Dennis Rivera, president of the 140,000-member 1199 National Health and Human Services Workers/SEIU; Anna Burger, of the SEIU international executive board; and Lee Saunders, administrator of DC 37 AFSCME, the largest New York City municipal union.
Saunders recently took over DC 37 on behalf of the international union after its former executive director and Giuliani ally Stanley Hill was forced to step down amidst a mushrooming scandal over corruption and ballot-stuffing.
The largest single labor contingent to be arrested came from the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/ UAW Local 2325, whose members provide legal representation to 300,000 indigent New Yorkers who are frequently victims of police abuse.
Diallo’s murder has so shaken Rudolph Giuliani’s previously unchallenged hold over the political landscape that even the Central Labor Council—which supported Giuliani’s 1997 reelection—has, at the UAW’s initiative, condemned the shooting and called for police reform.
Although the civil disobedience campaign was suspended after the indictment and arrest of the four cops who shot Diallo, 1199 and other unions have spearheaded the call for a demonstration on April 15 that is expected to draw tens of thousands of union members and many others.