Published in the Hartford Courant, Jan. 9, 2016.
To me, being in law enforcement is about more than doing a job, it's about being the backbone of your community. I have been in law enforcement for 16 years, as a patrolman in the New York City Police Department and, for the past 14 years, with the Norwalk Police Department. I've worked as a narcotics officer, a detective, SWAT operator, union treasurer and union president.
I know the challenges that officers confront every day and the importance of having a strong advocate for their work conditions, health and safety — their union. It's why I'm concerned about a court case from California that will be heard Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court and, depending on the ruling, could undercut and even disable unions representing government workers.
In Norwalk, I supervise the squad of patrol officers on the day shift. These are the women and men who do whatever it takes to keep our community safe, who we rely on in times of personal crisis.
When one of our nation's darkest moments happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, I was one of the many officers who assisted that community in the weeks following that incident. And in the months following Sandy Hook, I worked with my union to help assist the officers who responded in a moment of crisis and were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.
With the help of my union, I've been able to raise awareness about the importance of including post-traumatic stress disorder in workers' compensation benefits to make sure that the dangers that officers face — both physically and mentally — are covered. And last year, that work resulted in an opportunity to testify on workers' comp in front of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Four of every five police officers sustain injuries on the job at some point during their career. A strong voice at work is necessary to advocate for those who put themselves in harm's way. That voice gives officers the peace of mind that someone is speaking up for them and their families when they get hurt.
Unions give law enforcement the backup necessary to do our jobs. Our ability to organize and join together to focus on promoting a safe working environment is crucial for our profession. Emergency responders are the first line of defense in this country; we need and deserve protection, too.
That's why the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case before the Supreme Court is worrisome. A handful of teachers in California objected to a state law that requires them to pay union dues to cover the cost of contract negotiations and other services that benefit them. They are not obligated to pay the part of union dues that are allocated to political activities such as supporting candidates. A similar law applies in Connecticut. If the court rules in their favor, workers benefiting from union work would not have to join the union or pay any part of the dues — even their fair share of the benefits they receive thanks to their union. This could have a crippling effect on our ability to represent and advocate for workers.
Big-money corporations are supporting the case to undermine the ability of police officers, firefighters, teachers and other working people to join together in unions and preserve positive working conditions. When police officers aren't safe on the job, their ability to keep their communities safe is compromised.
Maybe that's why the top attorneys for 20 states and the District of Columbia filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting unions in the Friedrichs case. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said, "Strong public-sector unions are and should remain important partners in ensuring effective government for citizens."
That a case threatening the quality of our jobs is before the Supreme Court should worry every worker, unionized or not. America's economy has swung out of balance. Look around you: It's getting harder to get by, let alone get ahead. American workers created record wealth for an economic recovery that's been everywhere but in ordinary peoples' wallets.
Emergency responders play a critical role in society. We deserve a voice on the job to make sure we have the ability to keep our communities and ourselves safe with benefits and wages that can sustain our families. The court should reject this attempt by wealthy special interests to make it even harder for working people to come together, speak up for one another and get ahead.
David Orr is a sergeant in the Norwalk Police Department and president of AFSCME Local 1727.
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