New Film Promotes Public Workers' Fight For Rights

New Film Promotes Public Workers' Fight For Rights

Alantris Muhammad and millions of other workers like her face a big problem: The U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, Muhammad, a home health care worker and AFSCME member from Chicago, is already hurting, thanks to the justices.

That's because the court's GOP-named majority ruled IN 2014, in a case from Illinois, that home health care workers do not have to pay union dues, or even agency fees, to the union that represents them on the job. Doing so would violate their free speech rights, the majority justices said.

And now the justices could extend that rationale and that hurt, in a looming case from California, to every state and local public worker nationwide, and their unions – dealing a big financial blow to both.

To show the decision's impact and the threat, the Alliance for Justice commissioned The Right To Unite, featuring Muhammad and California health care worker Lidia Rodriguez. Both discussed their jobs and how being union members helps them and people they serve.

The film’s object is to raise public awareness and enlist popular support for all public workers – and to warn of coming doom. "Unless progressive groups unite, the rights of all are at risk," says Nan Aron, executive director of the alliance. "This court is favoring corporate interests while ignoring workers and their families.”

For Muhammad, whose union is locked in a contract battle with new anti-union Gov. Bruce Rauner, R-Ill., the lack of money to her union hits home. And that's the message she wants to get across to the rest of the nation.

"They want to take away what we already have," Muhammad said of Rauner and his administration, during an Oct. 5 press conference at the AFL-CIO, unveiling the film.

"I'm on the bargaining committee, and we're at a standstill” with the state’s negotiators. “So we've hit the ground running with door-knocking in Republican areas, saying how vital home care work is for seniors and people with disabilities."

The film shows Rodriguez and Muhammad at work, caring for and caring about their clients. It also discusses how union bargaining power improved pay and working conditions -- and how such improvements for all public workers would be threatened if the justices rule against unions in the upcoming case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association.

The justices will hear the Friedrichs case after Thanksgiving and will probably not rule on it until next year. If they decide against unions, every state and local government agency -- from school boards on up – would be virtual "right-to-work" fiefdoms. Then, workers would not have to pay for any services -- bargaining, defense, or anything else – that unions provide. 

"We need things that tell our story in a compelling way" to the rest of the U.S. in the hope that the justices get the message, too, said American Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker. "It's about bravery and framing (the issue) and courage. Data doesn't drive peoples' values; stories do."

The Right To Unite is also designed to counter what Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry called "a gathering storm" against workers and their rights. The film is available to people and groups nationwide via the Alliance’s website:

The film also counters a well-funded campaign by right-wing groups, headed by the Freedom Foundation, to try to convince state and local workers in West Coast states "to give themselves a pay raise by dropping union membership," Henry adds.

The Illinois and California court cases feature dissident workers put up as fronts for their real sponsor and funder: The business-backed National Right To Work Committee, whose unstated objective is to make the U.S. union-free by stripping unions of all their income. 

But while unions and their allies turn to the streets and the film to raise national consciousness about the threat to workers’ rights, at least one union, the Communications Workers, is preparing for a loss in the High Court. It’s expanding organizing among public workers and trying new ways to motivate them to join even when they could be “free riders.”

"More and more organizing is going to be like it was for the Texas State Employees Union," a 12,000-member CWA local in the right-to-work state, whose laws ban collective bargaining for public workers, says Organizing Director Sandy Rusher, a former Texan.

"We have to do non-traditional and alternative organizing," Rusher told a News Guild-CWA conference in Denver on Oct. 10. And unions also must figure out creative ways to collect dues and agency fees from public workers, she adds.

"And in the private sector, you have to have a fight in every single contract, for organizing rights," Rusher urged the News Guild delegates.

That's because, she says, the practical reality in the U.S., for all workers, is that "There are no labor laws that protect people's right to organize.

"So we're going to have to organize anyway," despite the law, Rusher concludes.