January 11, 2016
As the U.S. Supreme Court justices were hearing oral arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Jan. 11, a large crowd of workers from across the country, joined by other pro-labor allies, gathered outside the court to urge the justices not to side with the wealthy interests pushing a case aimed at silencing workers' collective voice.
The case centers around whether unions can collect a fee from public sector workers who opt out of joining the union, to cover the cost of representing them, since unions are required by law to represent all workers, not just their members. This has been an accepted practice for 40 years.
Worker after worker, including AFT members, spoke to the crowd about the vital role organized labor plays in raising their standards of living and giving them a vehicle to improve the services they provide to the public. Among them was Pankaj Sharma, a teacher from Illinois, who said, "Our union allows me to promote the best practices in the profession and connect with families."
AFT higher education members Lacy Barnes and Ryan Eckes also spoke to the enthusiastic crowd. Eckes talked about the challenges of working as an adjunct professor, where even a heavy course load brings low wages and few, if any, benefits. That's one reason he and his colleagues at Temple University in Philadelphia recently voted overwhelming to join the AFT. Barnes, a college educator from California, started an online petition to the Center for Individual Rights — one of the conservative groups funding the Friedrichs case—urging it to stop attacking workers and their right to join a union. The petition has been signed by more than 100,000 people.
The case was important enough to convince retired physical education teacher Nina Tribble to travel down from New York City and voice her opposition to the attacks. She said unions have been on the frontlines in fighting for things everybody needs, such as vital programs in subjects like the arts and P.E. that aren't tested in schools. "The bottom line is that this is about the [wealthiest] 1 percent and breaking us," she said.
John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, was among the union leaders who also gathered at the court. "We are facing tough times, and threats are still looming on pensions and healthcare, so we have good reason to work together," he said.
Jeff Freitas, secretary treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers, came even farther to represent the tens of thousands of members who fight every day to have an organized voice. "We couldn't have all of our members here, so we are here to make our voices heard and challenge this effort to silence our collective democratic voice," he said.
Follow more of the activism on Friedrichs on Twitter #worktogether.
[AFT staff reports/photos by Michael Campbell]