There is an important case working its way through the U.S. Supreme Court that could hurt teachers’ and administrators’ efforts to provide our students the quality public education they deserve. The court on Jan. 11 heard oral arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), a lawsuit whose plaintiffs claim is about free speech. In reality, it’s about silencing the voices of all working people by restricting the rights of public employees like myself and my colleagues.
First, some background on the case is in order.
Friedrichs attempts to overturn a Supreme Court precedent set by a unanimous decision in 1977. That case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, affirmed the right of public sector unions to collect fair share fees from anyone who chooses not to join.
Unions are required by law to represent all employees in a workplace, regardless of whether or not they join as members. Since they all receive the wage increases, benefits, and other job protections won through collective bargaining, it is only fair they contribute to the cost of securing them.
Under current law, no public sector employee is required to join a union or contribute to the organization’s political activities. Nothing about the Friedrichs decision will change that.
Now, a bit about why all working people in America—particularly parents with students in our public schools—should care about this case.
Our unions are made up of people, like my fellow educators and I, who join together to make our voices heard on issues that affect us and our students. It provides the mechanism for us to work for smaller class sizes, secure needed resources as well as to make sure we can retire with dignity.
Importantly, our unions serve as the catalyst for the kind of effective labor-management collaboration that improves student outcomes.
In Meriden, this has led to exciting and innovative results in our schools, such as full-day kindergarten, extended schooldays with wrap-around services and a peer coaching program.The incredible success of the collaboration between our union and management has brought national recognition, honors and awards.
It inspired our superintendent, Dr. Mark D. Benigni, last fall to contribute to an amicus brief our national union prepared on the Friedrichs case. In an op-ed published in The Hill he summed up his comments and delivered a strong argument in support of teachers and our unions.
“The entire Meriden community benefits from the voice of teachers and their union,” Dr. Benigni wrote in his piece. “Yet the Friedrichs case would make it harder for union members like teachers and school support staff to come together, speak up for the people they serve and get ahead themselves. Those behind this case seem to want to engineer the rules of the game to create an imbalance of power and make it difficult for employees to have a say on the job.”
Dr. Benigni is right. This case is the result of greedy CEOs and wealthy special interests trying to manipulate the rules in their favor and against teachers, firefighters, nurses and other public service professionals. Friedrichs case is being championed by the Center for Individual Rights, which has been funded by several far-right foundations, including those affiliated with the notorious Koch brothers.
The U.S. Supreme Court should choose the side of the millions of students in our schools who depend on us—teachers and administrators—to work together on their behalf. The justices should reject this attempt by wealthy special interests to make it harder for working people to come together, advocate and deliver the quality public services Americans rely on.
Erin Benham is a literacy teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Meriden, where she has educated students for 36 years. She is president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 1478, and currently serves on the Connecticut State Board of Education.
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