Keep the Cops Out of Our Shop, Seattle Bookstore Workers Propose
George Floyd was murdered by police after a retail worker reported that he had paid with an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill, and we know this was no isolated incident. So at the bookstore where I work, many of us have been thinking about the times when police have been called to our workplace.
We’re coming to understand that every time we call the cops, we could be killing someone. And this is especially the case when we call the cops on Black and brown, queer and trans, poor and working-class, unhoused and disabled community members, who are at increased risk of being victims of police violence.
Since retail workplaces are semi-public spaces, retail worker safety and community safety can’t be separated. Benefits like paid sick leave, for instance, help to keep us and our communities safe—a reality made abundantly clear by COVID-19.
That’s why, as part of our first-ever union contract, we have proposed to our employer a set of health and safety items we are calling “Cops Out of Shops.”
A NEW UNION
The Book Workers Union is an independent union that represents the 20+ workers at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. Our organizing campaign began in earnest in the fallout of a mishandled workplace injury and focused primarily on securing workers a real voice and transforming the store’s relationship to its community.
We began organizing in the summer of 2019 and won voluntary recognition from the employer this past March after we presented a petition showing overwhelming support. Now we’re negotiating our first contract.
By the time we started drafting our contract proposal in the summer, we had been talking for the better part of a year about what issues to address. What we ultimately put forward could not help but be affected, as we were, by ongoing events. We had been skirmishing with management over COVID-19 safety concerns (like everyone else) for the entirety of our union’s existence, and we were hearing members of our community reject policing in favor of solutions that could actually make our community safer.
So when we got together to write the proposal, in addition to issues like just cause, scheduling, establishing a wage floor and regular raises, and some modest improvements in benefits, these issues of safety were on our minds.
POLICE DON’T KEEP US SAFE
Retail businesses call in the police to handle almost anything they perceive as a disruption: shoplifting, erratic behavior (often symptomatic of a mental health crisis or psychological distress), harassment of workers or customers.
Police are also called to remove and no-trespass (formally bar, with threat of criminal penalties for violation) anyone who refuses to leave when told, often for such nebulous reasons as suspicion of shoplifting or “poor hygiene,” i.e., suspicion of being unhoused.
Relying on police in these situations fails to keep us safe in two ways. First, no harm is actually prevented. Cops don’t give people in psychological distress the mental health services they need. Real threats and harassment aren’t stopped either; the police show up after harm has occurred, looking for someone to punish.
Second, inviting police intervention exposes people to contact with police, which is to say, to the risk of violence and death. Any action which potentially results in killing a human being should only be considered as a last resort, but it’s currently our first and only option. We must find solutions elsewhere.
ONLY WE CAN KEEP US SAFE
Our “Cops Out of Shops” proposals aim to ask and answer two connected questions:
1. What aren’t we going to do? We’re not going to call cops unless it’s the only available way to prevent an imminent harm.
2. What are we going to do instead? We’re going to develop practices that recognize the value of everyone’s safety.
First, there’s a set of items that affirm our commitment and our right to not call the police. These clauses will protect working people from being made to instigate violence against our communities.
We’re proposing a mutual commitment between the employer and the union “not to call the Seattle Police Department for any reason, barring an active shooter or similarly urgent and extreme threat of violence for which there is no other possible course of action.”
Our proposed language also recognizes workers’ absolute right to refuse to call the police, even if they are told to do so: “Employees reserve the right to refuse to call the police in all circumstances without fear of retribution or consequence.”
But we cannot deny that we have for so long relied on repressive police violence to “keep us safe” that we have underdeveloped our ability to keep ourselves and each other safe. The second part of our proposal addresses the question, “If we aren’t going to call the cops when something happens, what are we going to do?”
Our proposal would mandate that the employer provide regular de-escalation trainings for all employees. De-escalation strategies can be used to help calm someone who is agitated, or to defuse a tense situation without violence. These trainings would give us the skills to address almost every situation in which we would currently call the police.
But we might run into situations in the store which we are unable to de-escalate, or in which we lack the knowledge or ability to be able to assist someone in need. So we’ve also proposed to form a health and safety committee which will, among other things, be tasked with “compiling a list of resources for employees to call instead of SPD when further assistance is needed.” The idea is to call someone who will provide real help to members of our community who are in distress.
RESPONSE SO FAR
In response to our proposals, management has thus far expressed—to its credit—a strong desire to find alternatives to a reliance on police violence. However, it has expressed an equally strong resistance to including this language in a contract.
We believe that if we’re as united in our vision as they say we are, then there’s no reason we cannot find contract language that will express the scope of that agreement.
So far we’ve had nothing but support from the brilliant network of activists and community organizers who have been fighting for true community safety in Seattle for years. If we can rally community support and win this demand, not only will our small store become a safer place for everyone, but we will have provided a model for other retail workers to get the cops out of their shops as well.
Sam Karpp is co-chair of the Book Workers Union at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.