Where We Stand

Building our power by standing together

By Randi Weingarten, AFT President

SCHOOL NURSES IN MARYLAND. Third-generation nurses in Ohio. X-ray technicians in Wisconsin. Our members are proud of what they do. Across the country, AFT Nurses and Health Professionals members are building on that pride to strengthen our union from the inside out, while fighting for the services that patients and communities need—and beating back the latest round of attacks from those who want nothing more than to eviscerate us.

Why is there this drumbeat of attacks? Because those who choose to destroy us know that their claims about things like trickle-down economics and the evils of big government don’t hold much water with the rest of us. They realize that the 99 percent realizes that their sole aim is to further build the 1 percent’s astronomical wealth. So instead, their strategy is to dismantle our infrastructure, piece by piece. 

The attacks have been sweeping through state legislatures—Wisconsin recently became the 25th state with a so-called right-to-work law. Gov. Scott Walker reversed a campaign promise by signing this legislation that aims to silence workers by destroying their link with their unions. Unfortunately, the impacts of these efforts extend well beyond our members; workers in right-to-work states make about $1,500 less per year than workers in states with collective bargaining. 

On the national stage, the U.S. Supreme Court could change the way that public sector unions function in this country. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is the latest in a series of court cases that upset the balance of power—with decisions like Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down the Voting Rights Act, or Citizens United v. FEC, which did away with campaign finance laws. 

As in Harris v. Quinn, the plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case are pushing to put an end to agency fee, which represents the cost to the union of representing all workers in a bargaining unit. Agency fee is also known as fair share, because it’s only fair if everyone who benefits from the services a union provides—such as collective bargaining for things like better wages, healthcare, a secure retirement and protections against wrongful firing—also chips in to cover the cost of those benefits. 

Under the current system, everyone votes on whether to join a union, and if a majority votes yes, everyone gets the benefits. If the Supreme Court were to follow the plaintiff’s reasoning, it would be setting aside thousands of public employee contracts as well as precedent reaffirmed by the court at least four times over the past 30 years. Workers in a bargaining unit wouldn’t have to pay their fair share even though the union would continue to work on their behalf, and even though all workers would continue to benefit from the union’s work. The intention of the Friedrichs case is strictly to starve unions. 

Right now, we’re dealing with the equivalent of tectonic plates across America. On one side, we have the deck stacked against working families, attacks on the rights of workers, breaks for corporations and the wealthy few. On the other side, we have working families whose wages have been stagnant for decades; they don’t just want to get by, they want to get ahead. These families are clamoring for change, and even unlikely allies are looking to the American labor movement to help spur that change. 

The labor movement was instrumental in building a middle class. When unions were at their peak, more workers—upward of 50 percent—were in the middle class. Even those who were historically marginalized and disenfranchised—women, African-Americans and Latinos—had a clearer path to the middle class. Private-sector unions helped drive up all workers’ wages. And public sector unions ensured better government services for the poor and middle class. And the income gap between the wealthy few and the rest of us was about half of what we see today.

Take it from the International Monetary Fund: Rising inequality on the global level is in part due to a decline in unionization. Or as Hillary Clinton said: “The American middle class was built, in part, by the right for people to organize and bargain.” 

I would add: The American middle class can be rebuilt by our collective right to organize and bargain—which is why what our members in Maryland, Ohio and Wisconsin and in other locals across the country are doing is so important. They are fortifying and building our power by reminding each other that the way we fight back is to stand together—willfully defiant. 

They are doing it by sitting down, member to member, co-worker to co-worker, friend to friend and reminding each other that our power comes from one another. As we stand up against relentless attacks from those who want to wipe unions off the map and take away workers’ voice, that strength gives us the power to fight back and move forward. 

Remember, when we are stronger together, we can leverage that power to improve the lives of the kids, families and communities we serve. And that’s why we’re here. We take pride in our work. We take pride in improving the lives of others. We can build on that power, if we do it together. 

Healthwire, Summer 2015 Download PDF (976.21 KB)
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