Buiding our power by standing together
Campus groundskeepers in California. Records clerks in Maryland. Paraprofessionals in Michigan. Our members are proud of what they do. Across the country, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel are building on that pride to strengthen our union from the inside out, while fighting for the services their students 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 know that those in the 99 percent realize that their 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 our state legislatures. Wisconsin, for example, recently became the 25th state with a so-called right-to-work law after Gov. Scott Walker reversed a campaign promise by signing a bill aimed to silence workers by destroying their link with their union. Unfortunately, the impact of these efforts extends 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 intended to upset the balance of power.
The plaintiffs in Friedrichs, like those in Harris v. Quinn a year ago, 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—chips in to cover the cost of those benefits.
Under the current system, if a majority of workers in a given workplace vote in favor of forming a union, everyone gets the benefits of that union. If the Supreme Court were to follow the plaintiffs’ 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. 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, with attacks on workers’ rights and breaks for corporations and the wealthy few. On the other side, we have working families whose wages have been stagnant for decades—who don’t just want to get by but want to get ahead. They are clamoring for 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. Private sector unions helped drive up all workers’ wages. And public sector unions ensured better government services for the poor and middle class. The gap in income 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 California, Maryland, Michigan and elsewhere 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.