Mandate: The Response of Public Safety Unions to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates in a New Era of Polarization

– Executive Summary

A labor union is a group of workers formed to advocate for their interests within a particular sector or industry.[1] In the United States, unions began in the late 17th century as organizations of craftsmen to protect both the price of their labor and their fellow workers within the trade during times of need.[2] Gradually, unions grew with the American economy, first as bargaining agents for larger groups of workers, then as advocates for political parties and issues and fighting for large-scale social change.[3] Today, unions are often large institutions that represent both private sector and government workers at various scales, ranging from small unions of workers within a specific location to larger organizations that represent thousands of workers spanning the country. Because unions are formed by workers themselves, they are inherently democratic—each labor organization is obligated to have a regulatory infrastructure to assure its members that the union represents the will of its workers.[4] And because unions are comprised of people, their infrastructure is naturally affected by the various social, political, and technological changes that their members experience.

This thesis explores the infrastructure of how unions represent workers and make decisions. In the onset, this work discusses the academic works of scholars who have analyzed the decision-making processes and democratic foundations upon which unions are built. Unions grew exponentially throughout the first half of the 20th century and became important stakeholders in the political economies of the United States and Western Europe.[5] Because of this, they have been the subject of much research and analysis from political scientists and sociologists, providing a large body of research discussing how unions make decisions, how they cope with dissent within their group, and how they establish priorities (often at the expense of other concerns workers may consider important). Scholars have argued whether these processes are good for the democratic societies within which they exist, and about whether unions are democratic at all.

The focus of this research analyzes what effects that the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent vaccine mandates have had on government unions representing police and firefighters. These unions have developed separately and distinctly from most other labor organizations in the United States. Government workers in the United States were permitted to unionize later than those in the construction and manufacturing industries, with police officers often prohibited from organizing because of their quasi-military purpose in American society.[6] This thesis analyzes that distinct development, contrasting the growth of government unions with unions representing workers in other sectors of the American workplace, and looks at how this development has shaped the current priorities and decision-making processes of police and firefighter unions.

The pandemic and the subsequent arrival of vaccines to the virus provide an opportunity to analyze union behavior, from organizational decision-making to how they deal with dissent and disagreements over priorities. This thesis researches how three separate public safety unions chose to respond to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for their members. In Chicago, the labor union representing police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, aggressively fought a rule requiring police officer vaccination, going so far as to disobey court orders and advising their members to refuse to comply with requests from their superior officers. Chicago’s police union invested tremendous political capital in its fight against the mandate, risking the political relationships required for favorable contractual and financial terms, which many consider to be the primary responsibility of a labor union.[7] In Los Angeles, some firefighters were dissatisfied with the response of their labor union, United Firefighters of Los Angeles City (UFLAC), which was considered by many to be too accommodating to the vaccine mandate.[8] A pressure campaign ensued, with those opposing the vaccine forming their own group, Firefighters for Freedom, which worked to change the response of the union and engage in political advocacy that was often opposed to that of their own labor organization. Firefighters for Freedom came to act as a new stakeholder in the political arena. Labor unions representing firefighters in New York would cope with a similar situation, with a group called Bravest for Choice forming to advocate against a rule requiring COVID-19 vaccination separate and distinct from the fight their union was waging. In New York, however, advocates would go further by accusing their labor unions of breaching their fiduciary duty of representation in court.[9]

The response of these three unions and their members was shaped in part by the specific development of public safety unions in the United States and their distinct growth from other unions within the labor movement. However, the research also indicates that new societal and political factors are affecting the way unions respond as an organization. All three unions were found to have been influenced by new technological developments such as virtual communication tools, social media, and tribalization, which have changed the issues that Americans, and by extension union members, care about. Additionally, legal changes wrought by courts have changed the way unions must build a politically diverse coalition that values priorities differently.[10] But while political and social changes have already transformed the way unions communicate with their members and the public, they also have the potential to inject new energy into a labor movement that has at times been charged with a lack of energy and neglect.

[1] For both a favorable and an unfavorable explanation of how to define a union, see “What Is a Union?” Union Privilege, accessed April 25, 2022, and “We are all Starbucks Partners,” One.Starbucks, Accessed April 25, 2022,, respectively.

[2] Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[3] Steve Babson, The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877–Present (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

[4] “WORK Center–Unions in Our Communities and Democracy,” U.S. Department of Labor, accessed March 27, 2023,

[5] C. Wright Mills and Helen Schneider, The New Men of Power: America’s Labor Leaders (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

[6] Michael Goldfield, “Public Sector Union Growth and Public Policy,” Policy Studies Journal 18, no. 2 (1989): 404–20,

[7] Aila Slisco, “Chicago Police Union Compares Vaccine Mandate to ‘Hunger Games,’ Tells Cops to ‘Stand Strong,’” Newsweek, October 20, 2021,

[8] Cristian Granucci, “Vaccine Tyranny: Done Being Silent,” video, 12:25, YouTube, August 23, 2021,

[9] Garland et al. v. New York City Fire Department, INDEX NO. 21-cv-6586 (Eastern District, New York, 2021).

[10] Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Ruling Delivers a Sharp Blow to Labor Unions,” The New York Times, June 27, 2018,

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