The Unions and Workers Supporting Cop City Protestors

“Cops are the first line of defense for business owners and employers, so I think it makes sense for labor to be opposed to Cop City.”

This article is being co-published with In These Times and The Real News Network.

Vincent Quiles, a 28-year-old father and union organizer in Philadelphia, is part of a fledgling labor effort to support the months-long protests against construction of the notorious Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, popularly known as “Cop City.”

For Quiles, this also means speaking out against his former employer: Home Depot.

When he was fired from a Home Depot store in northeastern Philadelphia in February, Quiles was already struggling to support his toddler son on his salary, which he says never felt like enough, given the meager benefits. He says he was forced to lean on his “very strong support system.” This was despite his demanding job as a receiving supervisor, he notes, in charge of tasks like tracking incoming merchandise and overseeing maintenance of machinery in the store.

Quiles had been with the company for almost six years and played a leading role in a unionization drive that sought better pay, staffing and training. The drive was inspired by the successful unionization of an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. His store’s effort, he says, was met with a “vicious union-busting” campaign from Home Depot management and culminated in an unsuccessful union election in November. Quiles, who comes across as friendly and direct, is adamant that he was fired about three months later in retaliation for trying to organize what would have been the first union in a Home Depot store. He says he is currently pursuing a wrongful termination charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

“The company would dispute this,” he says, “but I was fired for organizing.” Home Depot did not return requests for comment about Quiles’ claims.

But Quiles is not only concerned with his own situation—he is deeply upset about how the company’s policies and priorities are playing out in a city 800 miles away. Tax returns show that the Home Depot Foundation is a funder of the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the private entity driving the fiercely opposed plan to build a $90 million police training center in the South River Forest, which protesters refer to by its Muscogee name, the Weelaunee Forest. Cop City is slated to include a shooting range, a driving course, and a mock city to train police from across the country in urban warfare, as activists put it, and would raze an important ecosystem and carbon sink in a majority-Black part of the Atlanta metro area.

“So Home Depot has money to allocate toward things like this, things that many people in that community don’t want because of the harm to the environment,” says Quiles, “but you can’t pay people more for the measurable value they bring to your company?”

Approved by the Atlanta City Council in 2021, the plan has been met with months-long opposition from neighbors and protesters concerned with the destruction of the forest at a time of intensifying climate change and environmental racism. Protesters are also alarmed by the expansion of policing and its associated violence, and “Stop Cop City” has become a national rallying cry for environmental and racial justice movements. Law enforcement, in turn, has responded with a ferocious crackdown that has left one forest defender killed (Georgia state troopers riddled 26-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán with 57 bullets in January) and 42 charged with domestic terrorism. Three organizers with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, a bail fund, are now facing money laundering and charity fraud charges, following SWAT arrests at the end of May.

Quiles is not alone in expressing concern; his voice is part of an emerging labor effort publicly speaking out against police repression of the “Stop Cop City” protests. He is flanked by two unions—United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), a list that activists hope will grow—and quickly.

Quiles, meanwhile, is the president of Home Depot Workers United, an independent union which he says is in touch with workers at 25 stores around the country, some of which are actively planning union campaigns. He declined to disclose the exact number because he was concerned about retaliation and union busting tactics from the company. Home Depot Workers United released a statement in early April calling on Home Depot “to pull their support, both financial and otherwise, from the Atlanta Cop City project.”

The Home Depot Foundation gave $25,000 to the APF in 2021, $35,000 in 2020, and $50,000 in 2019. When asked about these payments, Terrance Roper, a spokesperson for Home Depot, said over email, “I can tell you we haven’t donated to The Atlanta Police Foundation’s proposed training facility. We have specifically donated to The Atlanta Police Foundation’s veteran housing program.”

But Maurice BP-Weeks, a fellow at Interrupting Criminalization, says, “This doesn’t pass the smell test. A dollar is a dollar, and Home Depot’s dollars have helped enable APF’s programs. Cop City is the signature program of APF at the moment.”

The corporate relationship goes beyond funding: As LittleSis pointed out, Daniel Grider, Home Depot’s vice president of technology, sits on the APF’s board of trustees. (Grider is also on the leadership team of the Home Depot Foundation.)

“Corporations the size of Home Depot don’t have executives join boards like this by accident,” says BP-Weeks. “They are sophisticated political actors, and when you see someone on a board, it’s a sophisticated action. Home Depot clearly expects something out of the relationship.”

Grider isn’t the only connection. Arthur Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot, has a family foundation that pledged $3 million to the “Public Safety First Campaign,” which is the term the APF uses for the project. (In a statement to In These Times reporter and editor Joseph Bullington, the foundation sought to distance itself from the project by claiming the funding went to a different project of the APF.) Furthermore, Derek Bottoms, vice president of employment practices and associate relations for Home Depot, is the husband of Keisha Lance Bottoms, the former mayor of Atlanta who supported the construction of Cop City.

I spoke with a Home Depot worker and organizer who played a lead role in drafting the Home Depot Workers United statement—he requested anonymity to protect himself from retaliation. The worker said he was especially outraged to learn about these direct donations. “Home Depot’s profits come from my labor,” he says, “and we get a tiny fraction of that. The rest they get to decide what they do with. So often, what they do with that money is they enrich themselves or they give it to organizations or other things that don’t help the associates, and that actively harm workers.”

Some union leaders say the fight to stop Cop City has significant stakes for the labor movement as a whole. “Working people always have to be wary of any repression against protesters, because there is a history in our country that once it’s used against anyone protesting government policies, it can be turned against workers in their union,” Carl Rosen, the general president of UE, says over the phone from Erie, Pennsylvania, where 1,400 UE members who work for Wabtec Corp. could soon go out on strike.

This is especially concerning amid increasing enthusiasm about unions, even if density remains low. “At a time when workers across the country are increasingly willing to strike and use other militant tactics to oppose rampant corporate greed, working people must remain vigilant and united against any attacks on our right to peacefully protest against injustice,” UE officers, including Rosen, wrote in a June 2 statement. UE says it represents at least 30,000 workers.

The leadership of IUPAT was the first major union to weigh in, a significant development from a construction trades union that says it represents “over 100,000 workers across the United States, including across the Atlanta metro region.” A late March statement from general president Jimmy Williams Jr. emphasized racial justice issues at the heart of the matter.

“The IUPAT was proud to stand in solidarity during the height of the pandemic with the Black Lives Matter protests in Washington D.C.,” according to the statement. “Today we stand in solidarity with the protesters in Atlanta who are facing egregious and unnecessary violence by the Atlanta Police force and others for simply disagreeing around matters of public policy.”

When Williams became president in September 2021, he was hailed as a progressive new leader, unafraid to talk about tough issues like racism.

The unions that have spoken out in defense of activists only represent a tiny fraction of the labor movement. But BP-Weeks says, “We are at the very beginning of reaching out, and the support we have is really exciting—good on them for getting out in front.” BP-Weeks is part of an effort to circulate a sign-on letter so that unions can show their solidarity.

“Larger institutions generally don’t move as quickly, so we are continuing to reach out to the rest of labor, and we expect more sign-ons in the future,” BP-Weeks continues. “And we also realize not all of labor is in the same place on that. This moment can be a tool to organize and do some political education with unions as well.”

But even where union leaders—or their memberships as a whole—have not signed on, some workers and union members are involved in Stop Cop City organizing. Among them is Bill Aiman, a part-time United Parcel Service (UPS) worker who is a member of the Teamsters and is also involved in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a rank-and-file movement for improved democracy and militancy. He is based in the Atlanta metro area and says over the phone that he has “been attending protests, and trying to organize where possible.”

“When I talk to coworkers,” he says, “the Cop City project is extremely unpopular.”

“Cops are the first line of defense for business owners and employers, so I think it makes sense for labor to be opposed to Cop City,” he says. “These cops are being trained at Cop City and will use the tactics they learn to crush our strike if we go out.” The UPS contract will expire on July 31, and around 350,000 Teamsters could go on strike.

Some union leaders say, in addition to the immediate interests of labor, there are bigger principles at stake. In their statement, UE officers noted that, “In a democracy, decisions about the use of publicly-owned land and public funds should be driven by robust public debate, including the right of members of the public to peacefully protest. Instead, Atlanta has chosen repression.”

Early Tuesday, Atlanta’s city council approved the allocation of $67 million in public funds for the project: around $31 million in public funds for the construction of Cop City, along with $1.2 million a year over 30 years for use of the facility. This was approved despite an outpouring of impassioned public opposition. The rest of the funding will be raised privately. The APF’s board is filled with a host of Georgia-headquartered corporate leaders, ranging from Delta Air Lines to Waffle House to UPS. Protesters say that the supporters of Cop City—in government, the corporate world, and police-aligned nonprofits—are ramming through the project without meaningful democratic input. Emory University conducted a survey in March which found that a plurality of Black Atlanta residents oppose Cop City. Many protesters say the funds should instead be invested in public programs that improve human and environmental wellbeing.

Kerry Cannon, the interim vice president of Home Depot Workers United, says, “Home Depot has a set of core values they like to say they live by, and their financial and other support of Cop City is in complete contradiction of their values, from destroying a forest to ignoring the will of the people of that area.” The company advertises a wheel of “core values” on its website—these include “respect for all people” and “taking care of our people.”

Cop City is not the first time Home Depot has come under fire for the actual values it promotes. Another co-founder, billionaire Bernie Marcus, has donated to the campaigns of far-right politicians, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In 2021, a coalition of Black faith leaders called for a boycott of the company, which is headquartered in Georgia, for its “indifference” to a sweeping law to curb voting rights, even as other corporations spoke out. Numerous Home Depot employees have also spoken out about a host of nightmarish working conditions, ranging from sexual harassment to timed bathroom breaks.

After losing his job, Quiles is organizing for Home Depot Workers United in a strictly volunteer capacity, and says he is having to “limit expenses in the household” and is “cutting it fairly close.” The “current corporate culture in the country” is what inspires him to keep organizing, he says, and speaking out about Home Depot’s links to Cop City is a critical part of that.

“The point of labor organizing,” he says, “is to improve society as a whole.”

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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