Purpose - Efforts by police organisations to unionise and to increase their social and labour rights is an international phenomenon, and one that is becoming more vigorous in the Southern African region. However, many governments are wary of police unions and limit their rights, or refuse to recognise them at all. This paper aims to discuss the issues involved. Design/methodology/ approach - The paper draws on face-to-face and telephone interviews, as well as e-mail correspondence, with police unionists from Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the USA. Findings - The efforts of the unions involved gave impetus to the formation of the International Council of Police Representative Associations (ICPRA), in September 2006. Two of ICPRA's aims are to assist and advise police unions all over the world and to provide the international police union movement with a voice for influencing policing futures. In South Africa, the Police and Civil Rights Unions is assisting police in the subregion and has become a symbol of what is possible for police even in repressive states. Originality/value - The paper illustrates how, in a rapidly changing police labour environment, police unions have the capacity to confront existing (undemocratic) occupational cultures, to promote organisational accord and to forge positive reform.