The phrase “One flew east, one flew west and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” from a children’s nursery rhyme is not only the source for the title of the award-winning 1975 movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it is also an apt description of many of our retirees.
Already in this new year, retirees who are committed to political action flew north and south: north for the snowy election districts of New Hampshire and south for the Supreme Court’s opening arguments in the Friedrichs case.
In the north, the long-awaited presidential primary elections are upon us. At the request of the American Federation of Teachers, the Retired Teachers Chapter recruited about a dozen hearty volunteers to commit themselves to one or two shifts of up to two weeks each going door-to-door campaigning.
Even with the warmer temperatures the area experienced in December, slogging through the streets of New Hampshire in January and February indicates a real devotion to union work. We are determined to have an effect on this crucial presidential election in which all that we have struggled to achieve in years past is up for grabs. Let’s use their commitment to the politics of progressive labor as a model in charting our own activism in this crucial election year.
The 20 retirees who went south actually boarded a bus from UFT headquarters on Jan. 10 to spend an overnight in Washington, D.C., so they could be at the steps of the Supreme Court at 8 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 11. They joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew and UFT officers to participate in a grand rally as the court heard the opening arguments of the now infamous Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association case — a case that could result in the “fair share” provision of agency fee payments for nonunion members of a collective-bargaining unit stripped from traditional labor law. And believe me, cuckoos on the other side are definitely circling this case like birds of prey.
The worst-case scenario of a negative court decision is not as innocent sounding as simply allowing freeloaders to benefit from the sweat of others who provided them with their benefits. It is a wedge that will be used to entice union members away from their unions and to further erode and then destroy the labor movement.
To wit: In Washington State, based on a court decision disallowing “fair share” or Agency Fee payments in nontraditional labor settings, corporate and hedge-fund types are suggesting to union members they can get an “easy raise” by opting out of their union dues, resigning their union membership and pocketing the dues because the union is obligated to take care of them anyway.
Separate working people from their unions and you subtract their collective voice from the public forum and from the political world that is the lifeblood of democracy. Sound alarmist? It’s an alarm that calls for renewal; for stronger member engagement in their unions. When union members have a sense of purpose and solidarity, they can defeat the anti-labor forces poised to silence their voice for fairness and dignity.
UFT members long have been used to raising that voice and taking action to accomplish a common goal. Think collective-bargaining actions and demonstrations, notably local school and neighborhood actions; think Albany Lobby Day, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, barraging City Hall and myriad other successful political actions. When the union dues checkoff deduction was suspended for UFT members in the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of union members voluntarily paid their dues. That was because we were committed to one another. Now we have to find creative ways to re-commit to one another.
Those of us who have been both in-service and retiree activists have spent our professional union careers engaged with our colleagues and in solidarity with the labor movement as a whole. Let’s help renew that commitment with action.