Building power through strength in numbers. It's one way regular people can overcome opposition from corporate and wealthy special interests to win concrete improvements in our everyday lives.
We may not be able to match opponents who can write seven-figure checks dollar for dollar, but by banding together, articulating collective demands, and negotiating with powerful interests (whether corporate CEOs or elected leaders) from a place of shared strength, we can build the leverage to win changes that benefit our families and communities.
This -- building strength in numbers and banding together to negotiate with power holders -- is a core component of what community organizing is all about. It's also a critical part of what unions do for the workers they represent in collective bargaining.
But now, the ability of unions -- in particular, unions that represent teachers and other workers in public service -- to help workers come together in collective bargaining to win better pay, benefits, and work environments is under threat in a case that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in January.
The case is called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. It is, in a nutshell, a brazen attempt to overturn what has been a settled Supreme Court precedent since the 1977 Abood decision reaffirmed the right of public sector unions to collect "fair share" fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
The fact that the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), the rightwing legal shop leading the case, asked lower courts to rule against it without even presenting an argument underscores the drastic departure from the settled precedent they're seeking.
On its website, CIR explains: "The speed with which the case moved through the lower courts reflected a deliberate litigation strategy. From the beginning, CIR argued that the lower courts do not have the authority to overturn existing Supreme Court precedent."
We all have something at stake in this case -- the teachers whose ability to band together and have a shared voice on the job is on the line; the students who benefit when their teachers negotiate for smaller class sizes; the local businesses that benefit from the middle class customer base teachers and firefighters and other public service workers represent.
But it's also true that women and people of color have the most to lose from a bad decision in the Friedrichs case. Unions have won important gains toward gender and racial equity in the workplace; public sector unions in particular have created avenues into the middle class for people who have been systematically shut out and discriminated against, especially people of color.
It should not be too surprising, then, that CIR has counted among its benefactors not only a range of conservative funding conduits that are connected to the Koch political network, but also a group identified with white supremacist ideas.
Maybe one of the biggest ironies in this case, though, is how conservatives will have to tie their own professed values up in knots to argue their position. Because the whole case rests on creating a "free rider" problem -- where people don't pitch in their fair share to support the shared benefits they receive -- for unions. The "free rider" idea stands in sharp contrast with conservative narratives about personal responsibility.
If CIR is to win, it will have to convince a majority on the Supreme Court that an organization should be forced to give the benefits of membership (like better deals through group bargaining power) to any individual without asking that individual to pitch in even a dime to support the bargaining the organization does on his or her behalf.
Here's the thing: what if the organization in question wasn't a union representing workers, but instead a business association -- like, say, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?
Would the U.S. Chamber stand for a legal ruling where any corporation could take advantage of the benefits of Chamber membership -- like discounts on products and services, legal documents, business resources, or networking events -- without pitching in even a dime to support the costs of securing those benefits?
Of course not. That's a free rider problem the Chamber and other anti-worker business lobbies would get up in arms about in a hurry.
So here's the bottom line -- unless five justices on the Supreme Court are ready to stand up and argue the U.S. Chamber should have to give free lunch to any Fortune 500 "free rider" that wants it, they should dismiss the Friedrichs case for what it is: nonsense. Case closed.