Why You Should Pay Attention To The ‘Friedrichs’ Supreme Court Case

The Supreme Court has once again decided to reconsider “settled law.” This time it is a case involving the rights of public-employee unions to charge employees a fee for the services the unions are required by law to provide to all employees – even those who are not members of the union. The goal is to bankrupt the unions by denying them the funds necessary to perform the required services.

The argument is that since unions protect working people’s pay and rights, paying fees for union services therefore violates the “free speech” of those who support concentrated wealth and power.

This case is going to be argued before the Supreme Court on Monday. Here’s why you need to pay attention.

Payment For Services Unions Are Required By Law To Provide

When a public-employee union negotiates a contract, even employees who are not union-members get the pay increases, sick pay, vacation pay, union services and other benefits of the contract. Union services include the cost of collective bargaining, administering the resulting contract, and representing employees who have grievances under the contract.

Currently, unions are required by law to provide these services to every employee covered by a union contract, even if those employees are not union members. So, the unions charge an “agency fee” to those non-union employees to cover the costs.

Public-Employee Unions Support Communities, Not Just The Workers

Public-employee unions, by their nature, fight for the interests not just of employees but of the entire community. On a Wednesday call about the implications of the Freidrichs case, members of public-employee unions described how their unions help them serve the whole community.

Vincent Variale, a New York Fire Department EMS lieutenant and 9/11 first responder, said it is important for first responders to have a voice at the table, because they fight for preventive safety regulations, good equipment and adequate staffing levels.

For example, he said that on 9/11 they had no respirators, so it was hard to provide medical care as needed. His union local brought these concerns to the fire department and fought to get better equipment. Now they have respirators and protective equipment that allows them to work in harsh environments, like building collapses, providing medical care that is needed. And now that there is such a concern about “active shooters,” the union is proactively trying to get bulletproof vests. This demonstrates how unions protect the citizens their members serve.

Pankaj Sharma, a high school teacher in Illinois, talked about how his union works to stop cuts to the most marginalized and at-risk students. Special education, for example, is an expensive program and is often a target for cuts. The union fights this. The union also advocates for referendums to get high quality facilities. Because teaching has a high turnover rate, the union created a mentoring program to help keep teachers. This helps school districts and the students.

Coming Soon: Not Just Public Employees

In 2014 the Court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment prohibited unions from collecting a fee from home health care providers who are not members of the union, even though the union was required to provide services.

Because of the makeup of the Court it is likely to rule in Freidrichs that nonmembers no longer have to pay those fees while the unions will still be required to provide those services. (Why else would the Court have taken this case?)

These cases are about public employees, but undoubtedly all of this is intended to lead also to attacking the same requirements for private-employee unions. This is about making every state a “right-to-work” state, and suppressing unions and wages.

Corporate Conservative Court Is Reconsidering Supposedly “Settled” Cases

In 1977’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that public-employee unions can charge this fee. So for decades this has been considered to be “settled law.”

But now the Supreme Court has a majority of members who made their way to the court with corporate-funded conservative backing. So the court is systematically reversing older “settled” cases that affect corporations, workers rights, and other elements of conservative ideology like voting rights and womens’ rights.

This time the conservatives on the Court are reconsidering the unanimously and four-decade-settled Abood decision. The case the Court is using to accomplish this is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The court is going to decide if non-union public employees will still be required to pay for the services unions required by law to provide them. All bets are that it will be another 5-4 decisions in favor of the corporate-conservative position.

The “Free Speech” Argument

The argument being used this time is that making people pay for services they receive, even when those services are required by law, violates their “freedom of speech.” This is said to be about “speech” because unions represent working people, enabling them to band together and collectively bargain, and thereby confront those with concentrated wealth and power on a more level playing field. Therefore, by their very nature, unions are engaging in “political activity,” and making people pay for the services unions provide is “unconstitutionally compelled political speech.”

In other words, because unions engage in the activity of fighting for better wages, rights, and protection, therefore the “rights” of those who would deny people those things are put at risk if unions are funded. Assisting unions in this mission by paying this fee thereby violates the free speech of those who support concentrated wealth and power.

We The People vs Concentrated Wealth And Power

The current majority of the Supreme Court was brought to its position with funding and backing of those on that other side – corporate-funded conservatives. These are the “people” whose “free speech rights” the Court says are being violated if unions receive funds enabling them to represent working people. These corporations are also the “people” who the Court ruled are allowed to put unlimited money into our elections because of “free speech.”

The Supreme Court repeatedly takes the position that anything that protects working people and regular citizens from concentrated wealth and power is by its very nature “political advocacy” and therefore violates the “free speech” of those few with concentrated wealth and power.

But the United States of America was founded by We the People – all of us “created equal” – with the purpose of banding together to protect ourselves and secure our liberty from concentrated wealth and power. This Supreme Court is consistently issuing 5-4 rulings that go against the very reasons our country was founded and our Constitution was written.

As the Supreme Court hears this case on Monday, that day will mark the beginning of a week of action to ensure that the public is aware of what’s at stake: the ability of workers to stand up for themselves and for the people they serve. Please visit America Works Together – a coalition of working people and their allies, working people like teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public service workers who are passionate about our work, and learn more about what you can do during the week of action.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Will the TPP Increase Trade? That’s the Wrong Question

One of the selling points for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement is that it will “increase trade.”

Here’s the thing. If you close a factory in the U.S., lay off all of the workers, devastate the surrounding community, and move the production to a low-wage country like Vietnam, bring the same goods back to the U.S. and sell them in the same stores, you have just “increased trade” because now those goods cross a border.

Plus you have the added bonus that executives and shareholders can pocket the wage difference (or park the money in the Cayman Islands). Hopefully they can also pocket the difference in environmental protection costs, workers safety costs, etc., because in places like Vietnam, good luck with ever getting those things.

Economists will tell you that moving the factory to Vietnam is an efficient allocation of resources. The workers and factory here in the U.S. can now be used for something that “we do better here in the U.S,” they might say, and the workers will be rehired at a better wage. The repurposed factory will sell higher-value things to the world that more than make up for the loss of exports of what the factory had been making.

Look around you. Is that what is happening as a result of our trade policies? No; we instead have a massive trade deficit. Entire regions of the country are shifting to third-world status, downtowns boarded up, foreclosed houses falling down, people feeling hopeless… and a few people get more and more wealthy at the expense of the rest of the world.

Regular Americans see their standard of living falling as a direct result of trade policies designed to break unions and increase the wealth and power of a few at the top. Many workers in other countries have few rights, the environment is not protected, government and self-determination are undermined…

If our trade policies were combined with policies that share the benefits from lower production costs, etc. with all of us on all sides of trade borders, then increased trade would be a good thing. That is not what is happening. The trade policies are designed to break worker power and to break governmental power.

So, yes, TPP will “increase trade.” Which means more and more jobs and production moving out of the U.S.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Another Secret Trade Deal – Are We Citizens Or Subjects?

In addition to the notorious Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is negotiating another secret trade deal. This one is a trade, investment, and governance agreement with the European Union (EU) called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Once again, everything is secret – at least on the U.S. side.

Last week, representatives from more than 75 U.S.-based organizations involved in “good governance and transparency,” as well as members of Congress, sent a letter calling on the trade representative to open up TTIP negotiations to at least some transparency so the public can have some idea what is being negotiated in their name. The letter says the secrecy “demeans the role of citizens—in many ways treating us more like subjects than the source of legitimate governmental power that we are.”

Marc Perrone, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) said of the letter,

“The U.S. must show its commitment to creating better trade deals and better lives by immediately releasing their TTIP proposals. Trade agreements negotiated in secret have had a devastating impact upon our families, our jobs, and this nation. Hard-working men and women simply cannot afford anything less than complete transparency when it comes to global trade.”

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Don’t Put Privatizer And Payday Lender Lobbyist On The USPS Board

With corporate-conservative calls for full or partial privatization of the United States Postal Service (USPS) escalating, groups are sounding the alarm about new nominees to the USPS Board of Governors.

The Senate is scheduled soon to consider the nominations of Mickey D. Barnett, James C. Miller III and two other nominees. Miller is a notorious privatization advocate and Barnett is a payday lender lobbyist. The Leadership Conference, a civil & human rights coalition, has sent a public letter to Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Reid asking them to oppose the nominees. (Since all four nominees are to be voted on as a package, the Leadership Conference is asking that the entire slate be voted down. At Naked Capitalism, in Epic Fail for the Postal Service: The Wrong Model and the Wrong Board, the other two nominees are described as not particularly bad for the USPS, but are “… a reflection of a system that treats public service as a revolving door for political and economic elites. This leaves a permanent imprint of the one percent on government and may be one of the primary reasons for cynicism in the electorate.”)

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NEWS FLASH: Labor Membership Boosts Incomes, Families And Economy

Study after study, report after report, and of course common sense and our own eyes are telling us that unions help people and the economy do better. It’s obvious. But the billionaires and big corporations want to keep pay and benefits low, and pay politicians to keep it that way.

Which Democratic presidential candidates will come out in favor of strong labor rights and the laws and regulations that protect and encourage this?

A new report presented by the Center for American Progress co-authored with economists Richard Freeman and Eunice Han is only the latest look at how labor unions enable working people to do better. The report, “Bargaining for the American Dream: What Unions do for Mobility,” looks at “economic mobility” and “intergenerational mobility” and finds that mobility is better where unions are strong.

Big words, but what does this mean for real people? The study found that areas with higher union membership demonstrate more mobility for low-income children:

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Are Unions An ‘Us’ Or A ‘Them’?

Divide and conquer works. When you face a strong enemy it’s always a good strategy to find ways to break them apart into smaller units that can be fought separately. A state initiative to gut California’s public-employee pension and healthcare benefits is trying to do just that.

A well-funded campaign is underway (again) to take advantage of the state’s constitutional amendment initiative process, this time to place a proposition called the “Voter Empowerment Act of 2016” on the 2016 ballot. The initiative would require that voters approve any pension and health benefits in contracts for new teachers, nurses, police and other government employees as well as any pension enhancements for existing employees.

This initiative follows a pattern well-known to California public-interest advocates. Ballot initiatives must receive 585,407 signatures to qualify, and corporate/billionaire-funded initiatives hire paid signature gatherers to get this done. Then they launch a well-funded, deceit-filled campaign to scare voters.

Similar anti-pension campaign have been, are and will be underway in states and municipalities across the country.

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Unions Are A Big Part Making The Economy Work For The 99 Percent

A Friday panel at Netroots Nation in Phoenix, “Unions as the Answer to the Defining Issue of our Time,” made the point that empowering unions is about more than just the workers having a path to the middle class; it is about strengthening the entire economy.

The panel was moderated by Seema Nanda, deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. On the panel were Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; Frank Piccioli, President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2960 with the City of Phoenix and Arizona EMS Workers United; Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, and Naomi Walker, who serves as an assistant to the president of AFSCME.

The panel’s description set the stage:

It’s no accident that corporate-backed politicians have been on the attack against unions. They know what we have known for a long time: joining a union is one of the best ways to un-rig the system and level the playing field for all workers. After decades of these attacks, wages are dropping, inequality is rising – and women, communities of color, and the millennial generation still face especially steep hurdles in today’s economy. The system is rigged. This panel will explore what the labor movement is doing to reverse these trends and what challenges lie ahead. There’s no doubt that strong unions are a key part of the solution to income inequality, the only question is how workers will organize a winning movement in the face of corporate-funded attacks.

Neera Tanden described how all income gains in the economy have been going to the top. One third of the stagnation and decline in wages in men is due to the decline of unions – down to 11 percent of the total workforce and less than 7 percent of the private-sector workforce. This is a challenge for the economy writ large, a challenge for families, people struggling with stagnant wages and rising costs. Other countries have figured this out. Unionization rates of up to 40 percent in countries like Canada and Australia allow people to have wage gains. In hard times, not just workers bear all the risk.

Grijalva said that with the decline of unions comes a decline in income, wages, working conditions and the overall political landscape. We see rising income inequality, wage disparity, and a continuing widening of that disparity. The decline is not the result of attrition; it has been a deliberate, long-run effort by corporate America and in some instances government to strip away the ability of unions to organize. As they began to strip it away, power shifted to ownership, to corporate America. Now we see the effect.

The Progressive Caucus and allies in the labor movement have begun to draw symbolic but important lines around raising wages and the push for executive orders to stop wage theft and encourage collective bargaining.

But the central thing, these symbolic victories set a tone, then when workers get opportunity, gains are made. There is work in the federal area with executive orders, but passing legislation in Congress now that is pro-union is near to impossible.

Corporations should be rewarded for how they pay employees, keep jobs in the nation, don’t send profits overseas. We need a corporate responsibility agenda.

Naomi Walker said that we need unions in order to solve structural problems in our economy. The people who benefit from rigged systems, the corporations, are fighting unions because labor unions provide a counterbalance. That’s why they are trying so hard to eliminate unions and collective bargaining. The public sector has been able to maintain a decent level of representation, so that’s why they are going after public sector workers and unions.

Frank Piccioli represents Phoenix city employees. We need unions to protect the middle class, he said, so workers who sacrifice, work very head, can share gains. And these gains extend to their families.

When Piccioli was a kid, his father was a New York City firefighter. One day, his father was driving on a bridge when he saw a car on fire. He got out of his car and pulled two people out of the burning vehicle. When he went to get the third, the car exploded and he was injured. The city tried to deny him benefits because he was off duty and not wearing his protective gear. The only venue through which he could appeal that decision was through the union. Everyone who works hard deserves basic benefits, to know they are protected.

Naomi Walker said that unions provided a path to the middle class for women and people of color. The current right-wing trashing of government is code for women and people of color filling government jobs and clients for services government workers provide. People of color workers and women lost wages at higher rates after recession as result of these right-wing attacks.

Tanden pointed out that the clearest thing we can do for the economy is strengthen unions, give people power to bargain for higher wages. Unions are the way in which workers have been able to address the things that are driving wages down.

Our economy is 70 percent consumption. When unions are weakened, wages lag, consumption drags, so growth drags. Unions do not kill jobs; they create jobs and drive the economy.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Will TPP Kill The Post Office?

Corporations are notorious for sneaking things into laws and regulations before the public can find out and rally to stop it. And we know from the conservative Supreme Court arguments against the Affordable Care Act that even what amounts to a typo can be used to change the obvious meaning and intent of a law.

These are reasons we need to see the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership before Congress votes to preapprove it with fast track trade promotion authority (TPA). They are pushing what is literally a pig in a poke on us. We the People need to open that bag and have a good, long look inside before fast track buys the TPP pig in our name.

Negotiated in secret by corporate representatives, it is probable that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is loaded with things the big corporations have snuck in. We already know from leaks that TPP contains provisions allowing companies to sue our government in “corporate courts” if they feel a law or regulation is cutting into their profits. What else is in there?

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Foreign Companies Use Trade Agreements To Attack US Law. I’m Not Making This Up.

President Obama says progressives who warn that trade laws let corporations overrule U.S. law are “making this stuff up.” Two attacks on U.S. laws and regulations are underway right now, illustrating how the “corporate courts” provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would open our country up to attacks from foreign corporations.

“They’re making this stuff up.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, legal scholars and others have been sounding the alarm about the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions that have leaked to the public from the secret TPP negotiations. They are warning that the ISDS provisions, as the New York Times put it, “would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment ‘expectations’ and hurt their business, according to a classified document.”

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Obama’s Anti-Populist Attack On Warren On Trade

As the Senate begins consideration today of the “fast track” trade promotion authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Obama says that Sen. Elizabeth Warren is expressing concerns because she is “a politician.”

The president’s statement demeaning what Warren (D-Mass.) is saying as just what politicians say makes it seem that he thinks that listening to constituents and doing that they want (a.k.a. “representative democracy”) is a bad thing. But Warren and almost every other Democrat have come to understand that trade agreements that send American jobs out of the country – and the fast track process that is used to push them through – have become core issues that could trigger severe public reaction. This Fast Track vote is politically the third-rail equivalent of the 2002 vote to authorize Bush to invade Iraq.

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Senate Fast Track Vote Tuesday – Where Is Clinton?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled the voting process for trade promotion authority, commonly known as “fast track,” to begin as early as Tuesday. If passed, fast track prohibits the Congress from amending trade agreements no matter what problems might show up, requires these agreements to be voted on within 90 days, limits the debate Congress is allowed and prohibits filibusters.

Passing fast track will essentially pre-approve the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “trade” agreement before the public gets a chance to know what is in it, as well as future trade deals regardless of who is president or what the rigged, corporate-dominated negotiating process produces.

With a vote coming as soon as Tuesday, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has not yet spoken out for or against fast track.

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Obama To Visit Nike To Promote TPP. Wait, NIKE? Really?

President Obama is scheduled to visit Nike’s Oregon headquarters on Friday to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Yes, Nike – a company that grew to billions by outsourcing jobs to overseas sweatshops, a company that sets up P.O.-box subsidiaries in tax havens to avoid paying U.S. taxes, a company that uses threats to extort tax breaks from its “home” state.

Phil Knight, head of Nike, is now worth $23 billion because America’s trade policies encourage companies like Nike to create and move jobs outside of the U.S. The 23rd-richest American is one more symbol of the kind of inequality that results from outsourcing enabled and encouraged by these trade policies. Workers here lose (or never get) jobs; workers there are paid squat; a few people become vastly, unimaginably wealthy.

Meanwhile Massachusetts-based New Balance struggles to manufacture its athletic footwear in the U.S. TPP will remove tariffs on imported Vietnamese and Malaysian shoes, benefiting Nike and wiping out New Balance’s efforts to maintain its manufacturing here.

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