By Alan Shapiro for Unions Matter
On January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that greatly concerns all union members working in the public sector, including teachers and other state and municipal workers. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, aims to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that has stood for nearly 40 years. In the important and unanimous 1977 decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court upheld the right of public sector unions to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees from workers who choose not to join the union, because those workers benefit significantly from union representation.
The current lawsuit is viewed by many as an attack on unions, which it clearly is. As Jean Ross, co-president of the union National Nurses United, wrote:
“The intended effect is to essentially bankrupt public sector unions….The architects of this move are the management-linked groups, funded by some of the wealthiest corporate interests in the U.S., whose goal is to eliminate the ability of workers to have a voice in the workplace or limit the ability of corporations to put profits ahead of worker rights, workplace rights.”
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA) was filed in behalf of just ten teachers in California by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a right-wing law firm. Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in the case, said in the court declaration: “I object to many of the union’s public-policy positions, including positions that they have taken…in collective-bargaining.” And Terry Pell, president of the CIR, said that the case “is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues….We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues….”
These arguments are simply untrue and misleading. First of all, these teachers already have the right not to join the union or pay union dues. However, in keeping with the Abood decision, those who don’t join are still required to pay “fair-share” fees for the benefits they receive through the union. It should be noted that under current law teachers who opt out of union membership are not required to fund any political activity. It’s important also to acknowledge that one of the “positions” unions have taken in collective bargaining is that every worker deserves fair compensation. A person’s not liking certain “positions” taken by the U.S. government does not annul that person’s obligation to pay their fair share of income taxes.
What Motivates This Case?
As a proud member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) for nearly thirty years, I want teachers and other union members everywhere to know what Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel, explains about our profit-driven economy and unions. It is knowledge that can have all my union brothers and sisters clearer and more equipped to combat the vicious battering union members have been forced to endure. Like other attacks on public sector unions in recent years, this case is part of a huge ethical battle going on in economics. Aesthetic Realism explains that it is like the battle that goes on in every person between contempt—the feeling we will be more by making less of something else, and respect—our desire to be just to the world, including other people.
The Ethics Unions Represent
At their basis, unions stand for respect and justice: men and women joining together so that they all can get what they deserve in return for their labor. This purpose is ethical
and kind And it’s completely opposed to the purpose of our profit-driven economy, which is based on contempt: seeing people as existing to make some few individuals wealthy while paying those who do the work as little as possible.
I’m grateful to my union because the UFT—like the CTA—fought hard and steadily for salary increases, pensions, health care, safe working conditions, paid sick leave, and fair grievance procedures. And the union protects these hard-won rights and benefits for all employees covered by the binding contracts they negotiate—union members and non-members alike. The teachers represented in this lawsuit are ungrateful, because they enjoy the benefits that the union fought for and won, and their desire not to pay their fair share should not become the law of the land.
Our Economy Today
Beginning in 1970, Eli Siegel showed that profit economics could no longer work efficiently. In a series of historic lectures titled Goodbye Profit System, he gave abundant evidence for this failure—centrally the success of unions. Every pay raise, benefit, and safety regulation won by unions cuts into profits.
That is why for decades there has been a massive attempt by corporate America and a number of politicians to destroy unions—which is clearly the purpose of this lawsuit. After successfully weakening private sector unions, including through the passage of “right-to-work laws,” they are now going after public sector unions, trying to convince people (including union members themselves) that unions are the cause of America’s huge fiscal turmoil.
The situation we have today is commented on centrally by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education. In the periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, she writes:
“What the American people need to be told clearly is who, or what, is really to blame for America’s economic suffering, job losses, government deficits. They’re being told unions are to blame, because unions have been able to negotiate for their members some of what all people deserve, including pensions and health care. If unions thrive, all Americans can have these, and more. Unions stand for all of us. The cause of our economic trouble is 1) the persons who are using, and want to continue using, America and her workforce for their own private profits; and 2) governments’ funding those persons and their businesses, with the people’s money—through tax breaks, subsidies, and outsourcing public work to private companies.”
The practical alternative—and the only thing that will now work—is an economy based on ethics, on honestly answering this essential question, first asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” This can be the beginning of having an economy that is fair at last to every man, woman, and child in these United States.
Alan Shapiro is a jazz pianist who performs with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. For 28 years he was a music teacher and choral director in the New York City public schools. He is a proud member of the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Musicians (Local 802).