Traditionally in this country, when an important public figure dies - even one with whom we've had sharp philosophical differences - we take the time to respectfully extend sympathy to the family of the deceased, and to place his life and career in their proper perspective.
Yet, in this year of cable-ready, polarized presidential politics, it was just a matter of minutes before candidates and pundits were making partisan hay of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February. Questions, opinions, warnings and speculation were rampant - a sign of our political times.
NYSUT, along with our national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, were respectful and measured in our immediate reaction to Scalia's death. But, in short order, it was time to assess what this unexpected vacancy on the Supreme Court bench means to the American labor movement.
As you're no doubt aware by now, the court recently heard arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, whose plaintiffs claim that "free riders" - I call them free-loaders - should be able to take advantage of union services without paying dues or fair share (agency) fees. An adverse decision, one that could eliminate fair share fees and, thus, union revenues, could severely curtail how unions operate and serve their members.
It was anticipated that Friedrichs would be decided by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Scalia considered a potential swing vote. Now, legal analysts assume the court will be evenly divided when it decides how to proceed between now and June 30.
The outcome could range from a decision in favor or against the plaintiffs, to a postponement to reargue the case next year, once the vacancy has been filled. If the court does not reach a majority or decides to move the case to the next term, and is evenly divided, the effect is to uphold the lower court ruling in favor of the union.
Of course, it's impossible to predict exactly how the court will rule. What's not impossible to predict is that legal and legislative assaults against working people and their unions will continue. Right-wing extremists, well funded and well organized, will continue their efforts to dismantle unions and oppress working people.
Brothers and sisters, the Supreme Court vacancy is nothing more than a temporary reprieve for unions. It is not time to relax and to ignore the very real threat to labor that a bad court decision would mean. Just the opposite, in fact: Our internal organizing and member engagement efforts must accelerate so the House of Labor is on an even stronger foundation and is able to beat back the attacks we know are on the horizon.
Every NYSUT member needs to step up and "be the union." Talk to your colleagues, family and friends about the value of union membership - a value, not just to individuals, but to entire communities. The NYSUT website has a whole section devoted to union value, including resources, information, first-person testimonials and a special message from all of the NYSUT officers. Check it out at www.nysut.org/unionvalue.
The Supreme Court vacancy also reminds us of the importance of this election year. It underscores that we must work hard to elect pro-union candidates at every level: local, state and national. The New York State presidential primary is next month and it's vital that labor's voice is heard so we can ensure we have allies to help us ward off the attacks on workers' rights.