Enough. That is usually my answer when kids or students ask me how much I money I earn, and, in general, it’s true. As public school teachers, we all know the deal we make with our community. We will serve your families as we would our own, and we won’t get rich, but we will earn “enough”. I suspect a lot of our public servants, such as police, firefighters, and nurses may say the same thing, though I doubt those heroes will ever be justly compensated for putting their lives on the line to save us. However, one of the reasons why our public servants do make enough is because of the organized labor unions they belong to. In fact, one of the very reasons we have a term for the middle class, a ban on child labor, weekends, workplace safety regulations, and many of the benefits workers have is due to the influence of labor unions throughout American history.
Many don’t recall the days where public servants were just another extension of political machines, jobs to be given to political supporters in return for votes or kickbacks. Or the days where labor unions were illegal, and attempts to ensure workplace safety fell on deaf ears. If any institution has spoken out for, and defended professional civic service and middle class aspiration, it is labor unions. From the beginning, labor unions have ensured that the most productive workforce in the world share in the American Dream of economic security; In other words, that people have enough. Which is why the upcoming Supreme Court case, Freidrichs v. CTA is so dangerous to all that unions have worked for.
The Freidrichs case threatens a labor unit’s ability to organize and protect their members from dangerous working conditions, untoward political pressure, and the ability to earn a middle class livelihood. Supporters may say that they have issues with political activities of local unions, but ignore the fact that members have the right to opt out of seeing their dues used for political purposes. The plaintiffs in the case, under consideration by the Supreme Court this week, ask that the local units of the California Teachers Association should negotiate a contract, defend it, protect member safety, improve professional practices, and advocate for schools without being able to collect dues from its members to do so. In other words, the plaintiffs want a free lunch. They want the services a healthy union would offer, without paying the dues that fund the same activities. Even Reagan’s favorite economist, Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who was fond of the grand maxim of economics, that ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’, would recognize the issue with this case.
This case threatens every labor union by doing what has frustrated small businesses, as well as city managers for decades; it creates what is referred to as an unfunded mandate. When the federal government passes regulations without helping the businesses comply with them, or tasks cities with orders, without additional revenue, it hinders their ability to make a living. The same goes with unions. Unions would be tasked with the same obligations, yet denied the dues to comply, with the purpose of weakening, and eventually breaking one of the last bastions in defense of the middle class. Before you ask yourself, “how much is enough?” we should ask who benefits from such a case, and what it means for the future of public education.
The immediate beneficiary is large corporations. In the United States today, corporate profits have never been higher. Often you see this reflected in the skyrocketing returns on Wall Street. Much of this has to do with the phenomenal labor productivity of working Americans, currently the highest in the world. But while productivity rises, the median income for an average American has barely budged; which explains the record setting corporate profits of the 21st century. Because so few Americans are now part of a labor union, few have any bargaining power to ensure a standard of living more of us used to enjoy, a standard of living that became so synonymous with our nation that we even refer to it metaphorically as the ‘American Dream’. This case threatens one of the most trodden paths to that dream, and the bulwark of our citizenship; public schools, and their defenders, the California Teachers Association.
The beneficiaries in the longer term are radicals. One reason the United States has never seriously considered communism, or even European-style Socialism, is the leveled playing fields our public schools provide, and the free market system we have enjoyed. However, both of these are threatened by the Friedrichs case. This case undermines the California Teachers Association’s role as an advocate for great neighborhood schools for all children, regardless of race or class, as well as the freedom for all workers to organize to ensure safe working conditions. The equality of opportunity we task to our schools, and the freedom of association granted to our workers, has created mechanisms to correct the worst injustices Karl Marx predicted would doom capitalism. But without these mechanisms of liberty and economic opportunity the dangerous threat of radicalism raises its ugly head and imperils our nation’s economic strength and stability.
While only nine Supreme Court justices will get a chance to vote on this issue, it only serves to put into focus the stakes of the 2016 Presidential election. The next president will continue to nominate replacement justices for the courts, and these lifetime appointments can continue to reshape American policy and law for decades. Our American Dream of economic security is threatened when we have a system that goes out of its way to allow unlimited money from corporate interests erodes our democratic system, but prevents regular working people from organizing to improve our society. It is time for us to say we’ve had enough.
Advanced placement teacher