Written by X389468
Pictures by a Fellow Worker
Typically May Day is a day where leftists and union folks of all stripes get together and remember both martyrs for the labor movement and the gains that have been made since the Haymarket Affair well over a hundred years ago; however, there are certainly folks who neither understand nor appreciate the significance of May Day or of the labor movement in general. The Davis College Republicans chose to mark May Day by arguing against unions in their May 1st general meeting and then by inviting Rebecca Friedrichs to speak at UC Davis on May 7th. Rebecca Friedrichs was a teacher in Orange County, California who became a right-wing activist after her suit against her own teachers’ union for their use of fair share fees went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2015 and provided precedent for the Janus decision, which ended fair share fees for all public sector unions. Admittedly the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) doesn’t employ fair share fees and is thus virtually unaffected by the Janus decision, but any attack on unions is our concern. Members of the Sacramento local of the IWW and the UC Davis chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) decided to attend the speech out of solidarity with the locals on the UC Davis campus and to learn more about the anti-union movement. Various other unions on the UC Davis campus expressed support for our action, but ultimately did not decide to attend.
What followed can probably be best described as a rambling, vitriolic presentation where Friedrichs aired all of her grievances against her fellow unionized workers and against a society that found her expression of her particular political and religious beliefs mildly distasteful. She depicted unions, and her teachers’ union in particular, as an all-powerful institution that not only possessed the power to hire and fire, but also the power to determine wages and working conditions at will without input from the administration overseeing the schools. In her estimation, the union’s inability to improve working conditions for the teachers according to the desires of the rank-and-file was purely because the union had something against its dues-paying members and not because the union is forced to negotiate with the administration and doesn’t immediately get whatever it wants on a silver platter. Friedrichs claims to have been a leader in the union at one point; perhaps she ought to have been on the bargaining team and seen firsthand the difficulties even the most conservative unions face in negotiating with the boss.
However, her complaints concerning her union’s inability to deliver for its rank-and-file members were not the sole focus of her speech. She also attacked her union for supporting the Democratic Party financially and for holding liberal politics in general. She complained that she wasn’t allowed to put flyers for her conservative events in her fellow teachers’ mailboxes and accused union leadership of being “haters” and “bullies” for objecting to her using her socially conservative views to undermine the union. Friedrichs also expressed outrage over changes to the schooling system, especially in the sciences. She accused the teachers’ union of rewriting science to suit their political agenda, and her choice example was Amendment 19 to the section B-55 of the standards regarding science education, which essentially said the exact same thing as the original text but in different language.
And if that complaint wasn’t pedantic enough, Friedrichs also took objection to the teachers’ union forming a partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in tracking incidents of discrimination and such hatred in schools. Friedrichs’ argument was that the SPLC is a liberal institution that targets conservatives out of spite and to score political points. She then proceeded to post a list of groups she claimed were defined by the SPLC as hate groups.
And if that wasn’t enough, Friedrichs accused the teachers’ union of corrupting children and forcing them to become “social justice warriors” through specialized classes instead of learning math and science. She condemned the student walkouts over gun violence and the student response to Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, saying that teachers were the reason that students were out protesting and implying that children are unable to form political opinions of their own (unless those opinions are conservative ones, of course). The hypocrisy is also evident when she condemns teachers for being activists, mostly by supporting their own union, and yet admits that she herself is an activist and encourages others to become the same. Friedrichs also objected to parents bringing their children to picket lines when their unions are on strike, suggesting that such folks are being bad parents by showing their children what a strike looks like.
At some point, Friedrichs stopped complaining about the teachers’ union, her fellow workers, Democrats, social justice warriors, and the “hecklers” in the back (our existence in the same general area constituted heckling, apparently) long enough to articulate an example of what she wanted to see in the world. What she was interested in primarily was charter schools; specifically, what she wanted was more “choice” in where students would go to school. Choice sounds good on the surface, but Friedrichs’ mask slipped slightly when she mentioned that part of the reason she supported charter schools was because the teachers were not unionized. Of course, once this fact was mentioned, she quickly went back to complaining about how the teachers’ union opposed charter schools, clearly not understanding why teachers with union jobs would not want to have non-union teacher jobs moving into their state and also failing to realize why private education might be a bad idea, especially for working-class families.
Those of us who attended the speech had been extremely polite throughout this trying presentation, including through some interruptions where Friedrichs objected to us showing support for certain concepts by snapping our fingers and called us “haters” and “bullies” for daring to hold an opinion different from hers and breathe in the same room. There was the opportunity for questions, and we were allowed one formal question. Considering much of her objection to her union was due to its authoritarian structure and close relationship with political parties, we decided to ask that if she discovered that there was a union with no political ties, rank-and-file decentralized leadership, and low dues if she would join that union. She answered with an empathetic “Yes!”, and that was when those of us who were Wobblies chose to reveal ourselves as members of the IWW and suggested that she join us. She had not been expecting that and promptly launched into a tirade where she chastised us for being “bullies” and declared that she would never join an organization with “bullies” in it. That makes it pretty clear that her objection to unions isn’t merely the structure of the union or the nature of its political ties, but the existence of people who don’t bend to her every ideological whim within that union. It’s probably just as well, she most likely would not like the IWW very much.
All things considered, it was an informative event, though one that was also deeply frustrating. People like Rebecca Friedrichs do not understand the value of unions, but rather see them as a tool to promote their own political agenda. Friedrichs’ vision of an ideal form of unionism is somewhat reminiscent of the craft unions of old, with multitudes of tiny locals for each individual trade that don’t communicate with each other and are full of like-minded individuals. Of course, there’s a reason why we don’t have craft unionism anymore (hint: it’s much easier to destroy a bunch of tiny unions that don’t stand in solidarity with each other than One Big Union). I believe, however, that the lesson would be lost on Friedrichs. On the other hand, some of the attendees were less set in their ways and had a slightly different view of the world. Perhaps one day they will come to realize that not all unions are like business unions, and that even business unions are better than nothing at all, which is what people like Rebecca Friedrichs would ultimately reduce us down to if they get their way. ⯁