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Another Voice: Strong unions are essential to America’s future

By Karen E. Magee

No one pretends that the collective bargaining process is perfect. Still, a strong union movement is essential to America’s economic future. When unions are strong, workers have a meaningful voice in combatting the excesses of management. That’s why a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, combined with State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s recent circumvention of the Buffalo Teachers Federation bargaining rights and labor contract, are deeply troubling for workers.

America’s economy has swung out of balance. Whether it’s at GM’s Tonawanda engine plant or in a struggling city school, workers can’t seem to get ahead. For too many, the economy feels rigged in favor of the CEOs and billionaires who manipulate the rules in their favor.

Unions have one job: to stand up for ordinary workers. By organizing workers in numbers, unions speak truth to power and fight for the fundamental values that make America strong: affordable health care, a dignified retirement and good wages that grow and sustain the middle class.

The ability of unions to speak up for teachers and all workers is under attack in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The issue raised in Friedrichs is rather simple: Because public sector unions are legally required to expend resources and negotiate on behalf of all workers, and all workers enjoy the wages, benefits and job security the union negotiates, should workers who don’t want to belong to the union have to contribute their fair share to the costs of this representation? Or, can these “free riders” force union members to pay their way?

In an amicus brief, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman argues that, while no one is compelled to join a union or pay toward a union’s political activities, every worker should be required to contribute to the cost of negotiating the benefits and protections all enjoy. These so-called “fair share” fees ensure that unions continue to have the resources to bargain for better pay and working conditions for members and non-members alike.

Elia’s attack on the BTF’s collective bargaining rights is, perhaps, a more subtle assault on union rights than the attack in Friedrichs, but no less onerous.

In her rush to rewrite the BTF’s contract in order to give her handpicked superintendent, Kriner Cash, powers over involuntary transfers and other items, Elia showed she does not fully respect the role of the union as the voice of the city’s teachers or fully appreciate the give-and-take of negotiations.

Elia and the powers behind Friedrichs do not understand that unions must not be handcuffed in their ability to protect their membership and advocate for their members’ interests. Weakening the voice of workers at the bargaining table only ends up hurting everyone.

Karen E. Magee is president of New York State United Teachers.