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No Time for Complacency

March 5, 2016

Michael Mulgrew, UFT President
By Michael Mulgrew, UFT President
Reprinted :   NEW YORK TEACHER  

New York, NY – The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13 may have temporarily derailed Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the court case that attacks the funding model of public-sector unions throughout the country. Many court analysts had predicted the five conservatives on the court, including Scalia, would unite to deliver a 5-4 ruling against unions in June. The other side had all but uncorked the champagne.

It’s not clear how Friedrichs and the other cases that were on the court docket at the time of Scalia’s death will be decided. But one thing is certain: The anti-worker forces arrayed against us aren’t going away.

The anti-union Friedrichs legal team argued that it is a violation of the First Amendment free-speech rights of government employees covered by a collective-bargaining agreement to require them to pay fair-share fees. By their lights, all public-sector union activities, even collective bargaining, are inherently political in nature. During the Jan. 11 opening arguments in the case, the late Justice Scalia was seemingly in their corner when he said, “The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere.”

But fighting for better working conditions for all workers, regardless of their political beliefs, is at the core of what unions do. There was a time when Republicans understood the role of the labor movement in building the middle class. In 1952, President Dwight Eisenhower, addressing what was then the American Federation of Labor, said, “Today in America, unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”

Try to imagine any of the current GOP candidates expressing that viewpoint. It is no accident that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the decline of the middle class over the past 30 years have coincided with the war against unions and collective bargaining.

Today there is only one political party that gets it. That is why our priority must be to elect a Democratic president in November to safeguard the rights of working people. We cannot risk another conservative appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You can bet the other side is strategizing. We barely had time to absorb the news of Scalia’s death when Republicans vowed to block any nomination to the high court by President Barack Obama. Sen. Ted Cruz and other presidential candidates insisted that Obama defer to the next president instead of nominating a successor to Scalia. It is a strange way to honor a Supreme Court justice who revered the U.S. Constitution, which clearly defines the responsibilities of the president and the Congress in these situations.

Losing Scalia on the court may have upset the game plan of those anti-union groups who expected the high court to hand down a decision in the Friedrichs case in their favor this June. But it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the resolve of the groups and individuals behind the lawsuit.

Keep in mind how we got here. Our well-funded opponents have no grassroots movement. The case did not originate with Rebecca Friedrichs and the nine other California teachers who are listed as plaintiffs in the case. Nor did it begin with the other plaintiff, a Christian organization that would like to organize teachers around its fundamentalist biblical views. It began with a signal from Justice Samuel Alito in an earlier ruling that the conservatives on the court would welcome a challenge to the precedent that allows unions to collect fair-share fees.

The Center for Individual Rights — an organization that is funded by the Koch brothers and other right-wing groups — took Alito’s lead and hired a law firm to cold call teachers who could front the legal challenge. Once they lined up Friedrichs and others, the lawyers put their strategy into action: They took quick losses in the lower courts to rush the case before the Supreme Court.

Moshe Z. Marvit, an attorney and fellow with the Century Foundation, told the New York Teacher in December that it usually takes a case seven years to reach the high court. The fact that Friedrichs got there in a year and a half was “unheard of,” Marvit said.

The Friedrichs case pulled back the curtain on the money and organization that have been amassed to decimate public-sector unions and replace public schools with charter schools and vouchers. It’s a force to be reckoned with. Already our opponents are looking toward a Republican presidency to advance their education agenda.

Scalia’s unexpected passing may win us more time to marshal our forces, to educate and organize our members and supporters. If you have not yet signed up for the Union Loud and Proud campaign, please do so now at Strengthening our chapters and increasing our reach with members have never been more important. We are at the forefront of the fight for working people’s rights.

The Friedrichs case is merely one front in an ongoing battle. In February, West Virginia, a coal-mining state with a legendary history of organized labor, became the 26th state in the nation to enact a “right-to-work” law — eliminating fair-share fees for both private- and public-sector workers in that state.

The political winds are still blowing hard against unions and collective-bargaining rights. This fight is not over. Not by a long shot.

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