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Fred Kowal: Friedrichs

A historic moment in America’s struggle for economic and social justice is upon us, though few Americans are aware of it.  On Jan. 11th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, the latest attempt by political extremists to turn back the clock on social progress in the U.S.

The case seems simple enough: 10 California teachers have sued to stop their union from collecting dues from them. They haven’t joined their union and believe it violates their First Amendment rights to pay dues.

Now, the truth about this case.

UUP, like the California Teachers Association, collects dues from everybody we represent, whether or not they’ve joined the union.  In return, they benefit from a union-negotiated contract, we defend them on the job, and we provide benefits that improve their standard of living. The plaintiffs in Friedrichs want the benefits, but don’t want to pay for them. That’s not right.  

The teachers have plenty of support. 

The Christian Educators Association International, a radical, anti-gay rights organization whose website accuses the NEA of promoting a homosexual agenda, is also a plaintiff.

The Center for Individual Rights, a right-wing law group that through its history has opposed civil rights—and specifically, the Voting Rights Act—is representing the teachers. The group is linked to multi-billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose stated goal is to break the back of America’s labor movement. 

How? By barring unions from collecting fee payers’ dues. Under law, unions would still represent fee payers—until they go bankrupt. Workers would lose all benefits achieved through union representation. 

The union movement would crumble, leaving wealthy corporate interests to steer—and ultimately control—our elections. Unfettered, these corporate CEOs would be free to undermine civil liberties, disenfranchise voters, and crush what’s left of workers’ rights.

Yet, the overarching claim these extremists are making to the Supreme Court is that unions use dues to achieve political ends. This is a lie. 

Not one penny of our members’ dues is used for political initiatives.  It’s illegal in New York for unions to use dues to support candidates or other political activities. Instead, unions collect voluntary donations for political action funds.

Fortunately, unions do not stand alone.  State leaders from both parties have submitted court briefs calling for the justices to reject the claims made by these anti-union extremists.

My concern extends beyond the threat it poses to unions. In a sinister twist, we face the potential of the Supreme Court being used to strongly influence—if not control—the outcome of the 2016 election. The eviscerated Voting Rights Act, voting rights restrictions in states nationwide and the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have set up this grim possibility.

Unions crippled by a bad Friedrichs decision, a loss of voting rights, and open check books in the hands of the Koch brothers would return America to the harsh days of over a century ago when rights for women and workers, environmental protections, and equality under law for all were but distant dreams.

A simple case? Not by a long shot. Friedrichs represents the potential undermining of the long held American values of liberty and equality.  It is imperative that the court strike down this threat to these bedrock principles upon which our nation stands.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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