For 20 years I have been a child protective investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. It’s my job to examine allegations of child abuse and neglect, and ultimately to keep kids safe.
I work on the South Side of Chicago, in neighborhoods where poverty, unemployment, violence and drugs are a daily reality. I am in the community every day, interacting with families, teachers, doctors, law enforcement and the courts.
This is tough and demanding work under any circumstances, but now a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court threatens to make my job even harder.
Called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the case is funded by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based lobbying group connected to the Koch brothers and other wealthy right-wing interests. They want to strip not only child protection workers but also teachers, fire fighters and other public-service workers of our right to form strong unions. They want to make it harder for us to negotiate together for the staff and funding we need to serve our communities.
It’s a national version of the assault on the rights and wages of working people, especially those in the public service, mounted by Gov. Bruce Rauner, his big-money campaign contributors and allied organizations such as the Illinois Policy Institute. In fact, Gov. Rauner has filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs in the Friedrichs case.
In Friedrichs, these wealthy elites are asking the Court to reverse nearly 40 years of labor law. Currently everyone is free to join a union at work — or not — but anywhere a majority of employees have voted to form a union, the union is required to represent everyone, members and non-members alike. Employees who choose not to join the union don’t pay dues but contribute a “fair share” toward the cost of the representation they receive. That makes sense — all employees benefit, so all share the cost — but it’s at risk in Friedrichs. The game plan of the right-wing forces behind this case is to force unions to represent employees for nothing, weakening unions by sapping their funds.
My fellow DCFS employees and I are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). By speaking up together through our union, we advocate to keep caseloads low so that no child slips through the cracks. We oppose budget cuts and privatization schemes that put kids at risk. And we help ensure that our agency’s management heeds the voices and concerns of the front-line professionals who work in the field and know the problems first-hand.
Without our union, we wouldn’t have a way to make sure those concerns are heard. Without our union, the children we protect wouldn’t have our voice to speak up for them.
Our union also lets us negotiate for decent wages, affordable health care and dignity in retirement. They’re needed to attract good people and keep them as they gain experience, ensuring that the grave responsibility of child protection remains in the hands of skilled professionals. And family-sustaining wages and fair benefits are also the basic building blocks of middle-class income security, something that’s increasingly endangered in our country today.
In the end, that’s what the Friedrichs case — like Gov. Rauner’s efforts to eliminate unions in Illinois — is really about. By joining together in strong unions, working people can have a voice and get ahead. If the wealthy elite use the Supreme Court to silence us, who will oppose big corporations and their CEOs when they manipulate our economy and try to buy our democracy to serve only themselves? And without unions, who will speak up for the middle class?
Stephen Mittons is a child protective investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the president of AFSCME Local 2081, which represents DCFS employees in the Chicago area.
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