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 that teachers see better than anyone what wealth inequality is doing to middle-class families, adding that nothing has elevated children as much as public education. "By joining a union, workers have a chance at working toward a better workplace, and a better workplace for teachers is a better education for students. This case could impact my ability to do what right for my students, my school and my profession.”
AFT higher education members Ryan Eckes and Lacy Barnes 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. "When we let wealthy special interests make decisions for us," he said, we lose. It's as simple as that. The Supreme Court should do the right thing and put the public interest first."
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. "Unions are one of the only means by which workers can exert any influence whatsoever over their wages, benefits and working conditions on their jobs," she said.
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.
Read AFT President Randi Weingarten's Medium post about the case and the court hearing.
[AFT staff reports/photos by Michael Campbell]