Silencing Labor’s Voice for Public Health and Safety

Ann Twomey

Ann Twomey

Not too long ago, an HPAE nurse was assaulted on the job. With the help of her union, she filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which then cited the hospital for unsafe conditions. This nurse was able to exercise her right to a healthy and safe workplace without fear of retaliation. In another example, when nurses at NJ hospitals believed that they were not properly prepared to care for Ebola patients last year, they exercised their union rights to fight for safer conditions and for stronger oversight over hospital policy by state and federal regulators.

At a time when billionaires appear to be dominating our political conversations, the rights of public workers to advocate in our workplaces and in the public are more essential than ever to our democracy. As Labor Day approaches, these rights are being threatened for the millions of public service workers who protect our environment, teach our children, and provide health care, emergency and social services to our communities and families.

A pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court – Friedrichs v California Teachers Association – could decimate the right of public service workers and their unions to speak up on behalf of worker and public safety. The organization behind this lawsuit has a clear agenda: remove a voice for working families in our democratic process, and limit the involvement of union members in public advocacy, politics and lobbying.

The plaintiffs in this case claim that public employee collective bargaining, whether over wages or working conditions, is inherently political and similar to lobbying. As a result, they claim that requiring public workers to join or pay union dues to the union in their workplace violates their right to free speech. It’s hard to imagine being able to reap the benefits of any organization without sharing in the costs or responsibilities of membership.

Under current law, public sector workers in unionized settings can opt out of membership, but must pay at least a ‘fair share’ portion of dues designated for collective bargaining, grievances, and other membership representation activities, as opposed to lobbying or political action. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to declare that public service employees must be allowed to benefit from union representation, whether in grievances or negotiated wage increases or job protections, without having to join or pay any share of the costs of this representation.

The current law requires a union to defend the rights of all of the workers in the workplace, regardless of their dues status, striking a reasonable balance between the need for effective unions and the protection of individuals’ views. The requirement that all employees must pay at least a “fair share” if they choose not be a full dues-paying union member works well, protecting those who do not want to support lobbying or political activity by their union, while protecting the rights of all public service workers to a voice in the democratic process.

Friedrichs v. California CTA is not an isolated case; it is one more installment in a larger campaign to silence the voices of public service workers and their unions. In a number of states, right-to-work laws and new limits on union collective bargaining rights have constrained the right of firefighters to bargain for safe staffing levels and the equipment needed to keep themselves and their communities safe; the right of teachers to negotiate class size; and the right of nurses in public hospitals to bargain for safe staffing, or safe working conditions.

Here in New Jersey, my union has been outspoken about hospital mergers, for-profit health care, nurse staffing levels, worker health and safety, the role of the NJ Department of Health and many other issues affecting the health and well-being of workers, patients and communities. When the agencies or institutions we work for cut corners on safety or the public health, we are often the first and only witnesses – ringing the alarm bell for the public.   It is an essential part of our mission in representing health care workers and the patients and communities we serve.

For more than a hundred years the labor movement, working in alliance with civil rights and community organizations, has led movements for progressive reforms benefitting all workers, including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and anti-discrimination laws. Unions raised the standard of living in this country, and continue to do so through collective bargaining.

Today, unions are at the forefront to raise wages in the ‘Fight for 15’, and in the campaign for earned sick leave for all workers. We are also a crucial voice in our democracy, providing support and volunteers for candidates who support working family values. It is clear that some billionaires don’t like our role in public debate, and taking away our resources and diminishing our numbers is one more way to silence that debate.

As we approach Labor Day, we need to defend the right of workers and their unions to speak up effectively and strongly for worker and public safety. Labor Day is a celebration of workers and our contributions to society. On this Labor Day, let’s defend and expand our right to be advocates for workers and the public good.

Ann Twomey is the president and founder of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE).

Silencing Labor’s Voice for Public Health and Safety