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Carrying the message about a threat to worker rights

January 7, 2016

With the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments Jan. 11 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the AFT and our allies continue pushing out the message about the threat the anti-union case poses to the rights of working Americans.

On Jan. 6, union members attempted to deliver more than 100,000 petition signatures to the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., which is behind the Friedrichs lawsuit. On arriving at the building, however, security employees would not let the members past the lobby, and the center's staff refused to speak to them.

As part of the America Works Together coalition, the AFT is helping forge a strong group of allies that includes a broad swath of labor and progressive organizations. The coalition's efforts begin with a rigorous defense against Friedrichs, but also extend long-term to the real antidote to the threat: member and community engagement.

Delivering thousands of petitionsThat same day at a press briefing organized by the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of advocacy organizations that includes the AFT, Illinois high school teacher and AFT member Pankaj Sharma was a featured speaker. Sharma, a member of the North Suburban Teachers Union, spoke of how his strong, vibrant union has advocated effectively not only for school employees but also for the community at large on a range of issues, from strong programs for English language learners and career-based instruction, to curriculums focused on creative thinking rather than test prep.

"The union has been on the forefront of stopping cuts for the most marginalized and endangered students," Sharma said. And on a professional level, "I know that I have the academic freedom to teach about controversial events with a union that is there to support me."

Also speaking at the briefing were union members Robert Bullock, a child protection worker from Massachusetts, and Vincent Variale, a lieutenant with the New York Fire Department and a 9/11 first responder. Both stressed how their communities had benefited from strong unions and their proven records of advocating for public safety and welfare—from equipment that allows emergency medical service workers to respond to the most dangerous situations, to smaller public employee caseloads that strengthened child welfare at times when cases were spiking. "A hit to the union would be a hit to the community," Variale said.

Reporters also heard from experts Sarah Leberstein, senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, and Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, who gave a national scope to the importance of the case. They warned that an anti-worker ruling would jeopardize unions' ability to solve some of society's toughest problems, such as fair pay and conditions for women, people of color and other groups that have been marginalized for decades. Mishel said that weakened public sector unions would undercut our ability to address two great inequalities in society: the large share of income accruing to the very top of society, and the inequality in political voice that working Americans now suffer.

[Mike Rose/photo by Michael Campbell]

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