Updated: 4:05 p.m. First posted: 10:26 a.m.
WASHINGTON — NYSUT activists Monday led the fight for workers' rights, demonstrating on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as arguments were heard in Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association — a case that threatens the future of public unions across the nation.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Andrew Pallotta and Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner — joined by other NYSUT members and staff — were among those who led the day's rally, staged in conjunction with activists from the union's national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.
“Our members have to stay vigilant, they have to stay involved and they have to stay on top of the issues,” said Pallotta. “They have to support their union. These are tough times. The union has been there for them, and now they need to be there for their union.”
The scene outside the court drew some 500 pro-labor demonstrators, who Pallotta described as “upbeat” and “serious.” There was also a smaller crowd of right wing counter-protesters as well as hordes of media, both national and international.
“There was a lot of positive energy out there and a lot of solidarity but, at the end of the day, this is not something we can control. This is something we have to prepare for,” said Messner. “This current court is not always about doing what’s just and right. We have to expect the worst. So moving forward; it’s going to require a lot of work and a lot of commitment on both the part of NYSUT and local leaders. We need to transform the way we do business.
“Incidentally, this is why the next presidential election matters so much,” added Messner, noting the next president could name at least two Supreme Court justices. “This (current) 5-4 majority is not helpful to progressives and unions.”
Ron Gross, president of William Floyd United Teachers on Long Island, was among the NYSUT members taking part in Monday’s demonstration.
“I’m a history teacher and so, I as stood there outside the Supreme Court and in the shadow of the Capitol, I was reflecting on everything that has gone on in this country and, honestly, I found it disappointing at this stage, that here we were fighting for our lives,” said Gross. “This is a pivotal moment in our history and for all workers” nationwide.
“Members have to think long and hard about what they will be giving up if their union is no longer there for them, and as a local, we’re going to have to remind them of that as much as we can,” Gross said.
A 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education upheld the right of unions to require the payment of dues by workers represented in collective bargaining. That same decision also determined that public-sector union members had the right to opt out of contributing toward a union's political-action activities.
But plaintiffs in Friedrichs contend collective bargaining is a form of political activity and want the court to allow workers represented by unions to become "free riders" — meaning they would not have to pay any dues despite the fact their salary, health coverage and retirement protections are secured through union representation.
Such a decision could decimate public union solidarity and finances.
“What really bothers me is (the plaintiffs) are basing their argument on the Constitution,” said Gross. “Well, the Constitution opens with: ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.’ Unions are a model of our country.”
Patricia Bentley, a United University Professions member and retired college librarian, said she felt it was important to make the trip from Plattsburgh to Washington to stand up for workers' rights.
"It's because of unions that we have good working conditions, compensation and due process that protects teachers, which allows them to become better educators. So, ultimately, this is really about the students, too."
Bentley called Friedrichs, "the ultimate test in a long line of forays by the (political) right (wing) to do away with unions."
Allowing free riders to "coast on the coattails" of those who not only pay dues but do all the work calling attention to poor working conditions and unfair labor practices is not only wrong, but "anti-democratic," Bentley added.
NYSUT, in a statement issued Monday, said the Friedrichs case "aims, not only to reverse decades of settled law, but also threatens the voice, working conditions and living standard of workers in New York state and across the nation."
The union also said the case was "a direct attack on American workers and continuation of the relentless assault on labor by anti-union forces."
"NYSUT and its members will continue to fight — as we always have— to improve the lives of workers, ensuring always that their rights are protected and voices are heard while on the job," the union said.
AFT President Randi Weingarten said the "wealthy special interests" bankrolling Friedrichs "want to make it harder than ever for Americans to come together and advocate for a voice on the job, a fair wage, safe working conditions and much more."
"Our economy is already out of balance," she said. "Wages are stagnant for working people, while the wealthiest take home more and more. But the special interest groups behind this lawsuit aren't satisfied— now, they're using the courts to attack our ability to form and sustain unions and come together to advocate for ourselves.
"It's unions that build the middle class," Weingarten added. "When working people come together in unions to advocate for a fair wage, good benefits and working conditions, it lifts up entire communities. We need the Supreme Court to protect our rights, not give more power to those who already have the most."
Follow the action from the steps of the Supreme Court and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #WorkTogether.