Koch-Tied Group Asks High Court for Radical New Limits on Worker's Rights to Negotiate for Higher Wages

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05:  Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05: Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David Koch on June 5, 2014 in New York City. The demonstrators were protesting against the campaign contributions by the billionaire Koch brothers who are owners of Koch Industries Inc. The brothers have become a focus of Democrats and liberals as they are accused of skewing the political playing field with their finances. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Today, Monday, January 11, will have a big impact on the American Middle Class and all of those who aspire to it.

Today, the United States Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

This case has been brought to the Court by the Koch-sponsored "Center for Individual Rights (CIR) " -- an outfit that made its reputation challenging civil rights laws. The CIR is asking the Court to break with forty years of precedent to impose radical new limits on the rights of workers to negotiate together for higher wages and better working conditions.

Four decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled -- unanimously -- that since public sector unions must represent all of the employees in a bargaining unit, labor agreements can require all employees that benefit from that representation to pay a fair share contribution to support the costs of negotiating and servicing the labor agreement.

This does not mean that all employees are required to join a union and contribute to its lobbying and political work -- or to anything else it might do that is not directly related to negotiating and enforcing the terms of a contract.

And recall that public sector unions represent only groups of workers that have voted to form -- or join -- a union to represent them.

The Supreme Court found that it would make no sense to allow a situation where employees get the benefit of wage increases, paid holidays, health care benefits, etc. that are negotiated by the union leaders elected by the employees -- but they can simply refuse to pay the costs of getting those benefits.

Billionaires like the Koch Brothers think otherwise. They want to make it as hard as possible for all workers to bargain together for higher wages, because they actively support a low-wage economy where CEOs, big corporations and Wall Street Banks can pay employees as little as possible and they can keep as much as possible for themselves.

The Friedrichs case itself deals only with public employees. But the Koch Brothers would like to weaken the rights of all employees to organize unions -- and they think that a sharp reversal by the Supreme Court would be a great first step in that direction.

Trouble is, if the Koch Brothers get their way it will deliver a body blow to the chances of ordinary Americans to live secure, middle class lives. Remember, the wages of ordinary people have not increased in the United States since 2000. In fact, virtually all of the considerable economic growth that we've seen in America over the last three decades has gone to the wealthiest 1%.

That's because people like the Koch Brothers have used massive campaign contributions and an army of lobbyists to rig the rules of the American economy.

We desperately need to reform government so it will once again level the economic playing field and build an economy that benefits all ordinary Americans -- not just the wealthy, CEOs and big corporations.

If the Kochs get their way at the Supreme Court, it will do just the opposite. It will tilt the game even more in the favor of huge CEO salaries, enormous Wall Street bonuses, and gigantic corporate profits.

And it will make it harder for people like teachers, firefighters, road workers, and paramedics to negotiate for the kind of wages that allow them to live secure, middle class lives.

These are the kinds of people that were the foundation of the American Middle Class. It was their skill that educated and protected Americans for generations. And it was their middle class incomes that provided the buying power that allowed the American economy to explode -- to become the economic envy of the rest of the world.

And let's remember that it was the ability of public sector employees to organize and negotiate together for decent wages and safe working conditions that lifted so many out of poverty and made them part of the Middle Class.

Next week Americans celebrate a national holiday to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Fifty-one years ago, Dr. King was shot in Memphis where he had gone to support a strike by mainly black sanitation workers who were organizing to demand the ability to negotiate together for better wages and safer working conditions

The event that touched off that strike was the death of two sanitation workers who were crushed by an unsafe, malfunctioning garbage truck compactor. It had been cheaper to pay the occasional death benefit to a low income, African American sanitation worker's family, than to invest in safety equipment on those garbage trucks.

The ability of those workers to organize together to negotiate -- to form a union -- not only brought them higher incomes and safer working conditions. It gave them dignity. In fact, the slogan of that organizing campaign -- and the civil rights marches that supported it was: "I am a Man."

Dr. King always believed that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Organizing campaigns like the Memphis sanitation workers strike bent that arc. So did the Supreme Court case that legitimated the rights of public employees to organize and provided them the ability to succeed.

It's not surprising that an organization like the CIR -- that has tried to weaken civil rights laws for decades -- wants to bend that arc back toward injustice -- to gut the ability of working people like those sanitation workers to organize to secure a decent middle class income and the dignity that accompanies it.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the rights of people like those sanitation workers 40 years ago, it did so unanimously. Every member of the Court -- the most conservative Justices and the most progressive Justices -- all of them certified the notion that when a majority of workers vote to form or affiliate with a union, then everyone who benefits should be asked to pay their fair share of the costs associated with increasing their pay or making them safer on the job.

Every one of them agreed with the sentiments of teachers like Reagan Duncan, a first grade teacher in Vista, California, who was quoted last week in The New York Times:

It's not right for some people to get union benefits for free while others have to pay. If I went to a grocery store, I wouldn't walk out with my groceries and not pay while the guy behind me had to pay for my groceries and his groceries.

She added: "It's corporate special interest that are backing this..."

Precisely.

And frankly. it would be shocking if the Supreme Court of the United States were to over turn a 40-year-old unanimous precedent and make it even harder for ordinary people to restore the American Middle Class.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.