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AFT-Wisconsin President Kim Kohlhaas Responds to Harris v. Quinn

Dear AFT-Wisconsin members,

Like many of you, I have been anxiously awaiting the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Harris v. Quinn, a case which threatened to eliminate fundamental workers’ rights across the entire public sector. In this case, an extreme right-wing anti-union organization, the Right to Work Legal Foundation, used a dispute over a recently formed union for home health care workers in Illinois to attempt to outlaw fair share fees and even the right to exclusive union representation in the entire public sector of the United States. While the Court’s conservative majority sided with right-wing special interests in their decision, dealing a substantial blow to our sister and brother home health care workers in Illinois and elsewhere, the decision did not, as feared, impact the right to exclusive union representation in the public sector or the ability to require all public employees to pay their fair share of the cost of their representation. This, at least, is something to be grateful for.

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As you know, of course, we have already experienced these attacks—and more—here in Wisconsin, where we’re familiar with conservative politicians and judges trying to silence our voice through anti-union laws and legal decisions. But thanks to the strength and resiliency of our local union leaders and activists, we’re still here, three years after the passage of Act 10. We’re a different union, but in many ways, we’re stronger than we were before, because we’ve been forced to fight for what we used to take for granted. So my message to our public sector union brothers and sisters around the country is this: Don’t let your union be defined by court cases, pieces of legislation, or even contracts. We’ve learned this the hard way in Wisconsin, but we know now that our power comes—and has always come—from shared passion and commitment to workers’ rights, robust public services, and high-quality public education. This power can never be taken from us if we remain organized and vigilant.

Whether or not we enjoy comprehensive collective bargaining rights, fair share provisions, or a strong grievance and arbitration process, the moment we let such things define our unions is the moment that we allow our power to be taken from us, because all of these things can be removed by a single court decision or piece of legislation. Moreover, we know that Harris v. Quinn won’t be the last attempt to do so—many more court cases, and many more anti-union laws, are sure to follow. Therefore, I encourage all of my sisters and brothers in the public sector to organize as if the Supreme Court’s conservative majority had taken the extreme steps that we all feared. An organized workplace is one in which union members have a real voice, regardless of whether it is through collective bargaining or other means. And an organized union is one which people will want to join, regardless of whether fair share contributions are required or not.

Our hearts are with Illinois’ home health care workers, who have suffered a substantial loss this week in Washington, D.C. But all of us, in Wisconsin and across the country, should take this decision as a reminder of the fundamental importance of organizing in our own workplaces. No court or politician can ever take that power away from us.

To help AFT-Wisconsin keep in touch, will you take a moment to fill out this very brief survey to update your contact information and indicate how you’d like to get involved in your local union’s organizing efforts? Thanks!

In solidarity,

Kim Kohlhaas

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