Friedrichs v. CTA – it matters to us all

Guest Commentary

Volume 116, No. 4April, 2016

Mario Cilento

An attack on public sector unions is an attack on what all unions do best: speak with one voice to improve the lives of working people

The Labor Movement provides the best way for working people to get ahead; particularly at a time when our economy is so out of balance. As more and more Americans struggle paycheck to paycheck, corporate CEOs and the super-rich like the Koch brothers enjoy more wealth. Yet our opponents would like to tip the scales even more in their favor and eliminate us altogether. Their latest attempt is through a critical labor case that has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And, although this case deals with public service workers, make no mistake – it is just one in a series of threats that seek to take away all workers’ rights whether you serve in the public sector, private sector or building trades.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA) is a blatant attack on the voice of working people by well-funded, right-wing special interests who want to take away the fundamental right of workers to organize and speak up together for better wages, better benefits and better working conditions. The Center for Individual Rights (CIR) is the driving force behind the Friedrichs case. A look back at what this group has sought to do in the past, including challenging voting rights laws and civil rights laws, gives you a clear idea on where their loyalties lie – certainly not with working people. Backed by CIR, the Friedrichs case is presented by a group of teachers from California who argue that they should not be compelled to pay any dues if they aren’t union members, regardless of the fact they will still benefit from the better pay, benefits and working conditions the union negotiated. Kind of like, if you went to dinner with a group of friends enjoyed the meal but then refused to kick in your share of the bill because the restaurant wasn’t your choice.

No one can be forced to join a union, but public sector unions are required to provide services to all members of the bargaining unit regardless of union status. Workers who choose not to become members have the option of paying only the costs of the union representation known as “agency fees.” Costs associated with political action are reimbursed through an opt-out option.

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld the “agency fee” arrangements in collective bargaining agreements between labor organizations and public sector employers. Friedrichs v. CTA seeks to overturn previously decided cases from almost 40 years ago and if successful would be a tremendous setback for all working people. You can hear the ad campaign now – “Want some extra cash in your paycheck? Stop paying union dues.” Of course putting more money in your paycheck is not what our opponents are interested in at all. They simply want to weaken our ability to do what we do best: speak with one voice to improve the lives of working people. And by the way, “extra cash in your paycheck” would be a short term temporary gain as hundreds of studies have shown time and again, non-union members make far less than their union counterparts.

A union’s strength comes from its members and here in New York State the labor movement has a long and proud history, and that continues today. According to the latest report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York remains the most unionized state in the country, with 24.7 percent of the workforce belonging to a union. Last year alone, New York State added 60,000 new union members providing even more dedicated working men and women with good, solid, middle class jobs and an opportunity for a better life.

A decision in the Friedrichs case was expected in June, but now with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia the path is unclear. What is clear is that we have been given an opportunity to redouble our efforts to educate not only our public sector brothers and sisters but also our members in the private sector and building trades as well.

As such, the Executive Council of the NYS AFL-CIO, made up of leaders from all sectors, unanimously adopted a resolution recognizing that Friedrichs v. CTA is an attack on all workers’ rights and reaffirming labor’s commitment to speaking with one voice to ensure all working people understand the value of being in a union. Because, when one sector is weakened, we all suffer.

The 2.5 million working men and women who make up the New York State AFL-CIO share an unbreakable bond. We understand intuitively that when we stand shoulder to shoulder and fight together we improve the lives of all working people.

Mario Cilento is president of the New York State AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the country with more than 3,000 affiliated public sector, private sector, and building trades unions throughout the state representing 2.5 million members, retirees and their families committed to helping working people achieve a better life.