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Pocan Op-Ed: Supreme Court case could threaten middle class

Jan 11, 2016
In The News

The Capital Times

By Rep. Mark Pocan

This year, America celebrates the 150th anniversary of the founding of the National Labor Union. The nation’s first labor federation changed the course of history for working people. The pioneering work of the National Labor Union paved the way for other labor organizations and for better working conditions across the country.

This month, we also celebrate the 54th anniversary of President Kennedy signing an executive order guaranteeing federal workers the ability to collectively bargain. That order not only gave federal employees bargaining rights, but also inspired working people across the nation to take action. Unions of firefighters, teachers, social workers, and all kinds of working people were formed in the following decades.

I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects unions have had on our country. Union jobs are an entry point to the middle class for millions of Americans. Our economy and our country are stronger when working Americans are guaranteed basic workplace protections. As a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the AFL-CIO, I know just how large an impact unions make on workers’ lives.

I’ve also seen what happens to working people when their ability to come together is threatened, like it has been in Wisconsin. As a member of the State Assembly, I was deeply involved in opposing Act 10, the law that weakened public sector unions. For many years now, unions comprised of hardworking individuals have relied on the strength of their members to afford workers access to basic middle-class benefits. Act 10 eliminated the rights of workers, including teachers, to collectively bargain for pay and benefits. This legislation was a targeted assault on unions and undermined teachers and other public employees who pride themselves on their service to their students and the state.

We should be making it easier for people to get into the middle class, not harder. Unfortunately, powerful special interests continue to execute their anti-worker agenda.

On Monday, Jan. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments that could put America’s middle class in jeopardy. Wealthy corporate special interests have quickly pushed the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case through the judicial system — all the way to the Supreme Court — in a desperate attempt to curtail the rights of working people across the country.

The Friedrichs case is an attack on American workers and the unions that provide workers with basic job protections. This allows firefighters, teachers, food service employees and policemen to do what they do best: serve our communities. These people are our friends and neighbors and should be able to support their own families.

What this case is really about is the ability of the teachers, librarians, nurses, social workers, firefighters and policemen who do such important work to be in the middle class. They are doing tough, often thankless work, and they aren’t getting rich doing it. These working people deserve the right to join together to secure working conditions and wages that will sustain their families.

The rules that affect working Americans should not be set by the moneyed corporations that stand to profit from their implementation.

History has proven that when unions succeed, the middle class succeeds — any conversation about the future of unions is a conversation about the future of what it means to be middle class in America.

That’s what is at stake in this case.

Every community will suffer in a version of America where working people don’t have a voice in the workplace. We should be taking every action possible to make sure these people — these emergency responders and educators and caregivers — have the best training and working conditions possible while they provide critical services to the communities we call home.

It is in the interest of our people and our country to have as many people living in economic security as possible. The deck is already stacked in the favor of the special interests and the corporate CEOs; working people can only be heard when they have the ability to come together and speak in one voice. That ability must be protected.