The same powerful interests that failed to pass right-to-work laws and constitutional amendments in Minnesota and other states are now trying their luck at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association.
Oral arguments are Monday. The justices will rule later this year. Before and after, pundits will fill newspapers and airwaves with predictions of what the case will mean for American labor.
We’re not those pundits. We’re three public employees, ordinary members of the unions the Fredrichs plaintiffs want to destroy. We worry what that would mean for the public we serve.
Here are our reasons:
Connie Andrews: Back in 1982, my union made Minnesota the first state in the nation to pay female employees equal pay for equal work. I’ve been grateful ever since.
I worked for the Minnesota Department of National Resources at Itasca State Park in 1982. I earned $11 an hour as a top-level clerical worker, handling millions of dollars from tourists each year. Groundskeepers earned $15 an hour, $4 more than me. Back then, bosses figured men should earn more because they were family breadwinners.
Well, I had a family to support, too. When pay equity was written into our contract, I received a raise. Along with raises that followed, it meant I earned enough to raise my family, own a home and retire with dignity.
Collective bargaining inspires women to negotiate for a better life. Women in the private sector are still paid only 80 cents for every dollar paid men.
That’s why I’m so concerned about the Friedrichs case. It could stop decades of progress unions have made for working women. For our mothers, sisters and daughters, we must challenge this terrible lawsuit.
Anna Angeles-Farris: I’ve seen firsthand what standing together with co-workers can do to help our communities. I’ve been a custodian with the Lakeville schools for the last 10 years, and I’ve worked together with my colleagues to ensure that our work benefits our families, our schools and our community.
Good jobs bring stability to a worksite. Sometimes that means everyone is safer. For example, we had an incident where smoke was coming from a community education cooking class. I had enough experience to know where everyone was, the safest way out for them and whom to contact.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know students and families, which means our schools are a more welcoming place. Not all worksites are like this. At one of my previous jobs, where workers couldn’t organize, the owner laid off the entire crew to hire cheaper workers. It hurt the employees and devalued our work.
Through my union, I’ve seen how workers can join together to make their worksites more equitable and strengthen their communities. I hope that never changes.
Steve Odmark: This latest attack on unions has made me think back to how my own views on unions have grown over the years.
When I first came to Century College, all I wanted to do was teach philosophy. I didn’t want to get involved in union issues. I came from a family where “union” was a bad word. I was led to believe that unions existed merely to allow people to be paid more to work less.
It took awhile, but I realized that my union was actually doing things to make our college better: It was making it a secure place for me to teach about important and controversial ideas, and it was improving conditions for students, as well.
I couldn’t just sit by and benefit from my union and not give back, so I got involved. Through our union, I am helping my college be a better place for faculty members to educate our students to become intelligent citizens and a part of a quality workforce.
I have seen what is happening to public education in Wisconsin, which has passed several laws to weaken unions since 2011, including a right-to-work law in March. For teachers, the changes mean more difficult working conditions, less job security, lower salaries and less freedom to teach. Predictably, some of the best are finding new jobs in other states.
The Supreme Court could use the Friedrichs case to bring Wisconsin-style attacks on unions to Minnesota and every other state.
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Our stories are not unique. There are more than 150,000 public employees in Minnesota who are represented by unions that advocate for equal pay, fair wages and dignified retirements. But that’s not all.
Our working conditions are the conditions in which Minnesota’s children learn and in which its sick and elderly are cared for. Our members plow Minnesota’s roads, inspect its bridges, keep its water safe to drink and do a thousand other things that contribute to our quality of life.
Minnesotans who value all of these contributions to our communities should stand with us against this lawsuit and its backers.
Connie Andrews, of Grand Rapids, Minn., retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and is a member of AFSCME Council 5. Anna Angeles-Farris, of Apple Valley, is a custodian in the Lakeville schools and a member of SEIU Local 284. Steve Odmark, of White Bear Lake, teaches philosophy at Century College and is a member of the Minnesota State College Faculty union, affiliated with Education Minnesota.