In Standing Up to Goliath: Battling State and National Teachers’ Unions for the Heart and Soul of Our Kids and Country, teacher, wife, mother, devout Christian and Supreme Court plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs (David) has written an informative, enjoyable and, at times, infuriating book in which she weaves revelations about her humble roots, marriages, problems with her own children and battles with the teachers unions (Goliath) into a tale that is both personal and political. There are charts, tables, stories, stories and more stories.
We meet a resilient woman who became a single mom when her son was just four, whose unstable life saw them moving six times in four years. Refusing to accept her son’s ADHD diagnosis and a rocky blending of families when she married her supportive husband Charles provided more challenges. But with much love and determination, they were eventually able to achieve peace and tranquility.
Little did Friedrichs know what lay ahead of her then. Her first brush with the teachers union came in 1988 when, as a student teacher, she was assigned to a fabulous mentor-teacher who was inspirational. Dubbed “the master,” her classroom “was a refuge, a place where dreams and imaginations could thrive.” But right next door, there was “the witch,” a screamer who had no control over her class and regularly manhandled her kids. Friedrichs voiced her alarm to the master who responded, “Today’s the day you learn about teachers unions,” and went on to explain that the teacher next door had tenure, and because of that status the teachers union protected her, making it nearly impossible for a principal or school district to get rid of her.
After distancing herself for years as best she could from her union, Friedrichs decided she might be able to effect change from the inside. In 2009, after becoming a member of her local union’s board, the district was faced with layoffs, and several terrific young teachers were about to be jobless due to the union-mandated seniority regimen. Friedrichs went to other teachers in her district and proposed that if they all took a slight pay cut, they could save the jobs of the low-seniority teachers. The other teachers supported her, but the union wasn’t having any of it and ignored the teachers’ input. The union assured her, however, that it was going to take care of the laid-off teachers – by offering them “a seminar on how to get unemployment benefits.”
By this point, Friedrichs realized that something major needed to be done. Doing this, trying that, and tinkering around the edges wasn’t accomplishing anything, since no matter how any teacher felt about the unions, they were forced to support them because of the Abood decision in 1977. That ruling required any teacher who wanted out to still pay “agency fees” to the union, which is a full dues payment minus the money it reportedly spends on politics.
Her mission intensified in 2013 when she was asked to join a lawsuit that could extricate teachers (and all public employees) from being required to pay any money whatsoever to a union. When asked to be the lead plaintiff, she readily agreed, thinking that meant she would be “sort of a ‘team mom’ for all of the plaintiffs—you know, I’d bake cookies, wrap up cute little gifts of encouragement, get some pompoms and balloons and cheer on our team with some of my old softball chants.” (Of course, that innocence didn’t prevent her from subsequently being tarred with such charming appellations as “Spawn of Satan” and “Whore of the Koch Brothers.”)
Her case made its way to the Supreme Court in 2016, where it was clearly headed for victory until Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death in February of that year. (But eventually, our heroine would get to celebrate, as the follow-up Janus v AFSCME case was successful this past June. The hard-fought, long-awaited decision was announced on her birthday.)
Throughout Friedrichs’ odyssey, she came across people with touching and infuriating tales that exemplified the teachers unions’ callous attitude and bullying. She introduces us to Joseph Ocol, a dedicated teacher who ran an after-school chess club for at-risk kids in Chicago. When he refused to participate in a teachers strike, choosing to remain loyal to his inner city students, he was summarily thrown out of the union. (He was still forced to continue paying dues, of course.)
Then there is Jade Thompson, a Spanish teacher, whose union, the Ohio Education Association, used her forced dues to fund a slanderous campaign against her husband when he ran for state representative. “My mom received fourteen high-priced glossy flyers all aimed at my husband. They highlighted really ugly pictures of Andy. They placed a pig in the picture with him and showed him barbecuing and put an insulting little chef’s hat on his head. It was mockery. They made him look like a buffoon.” The union apparently saw nothing wrong with using Thompson’s own money to destroy her husband’s political career.
While the book is chock-full of entertaining tales and some that make your blood boil, Friedrichs also uses charts and tables to illustrate the unchecked power of the teachers unions. For example, we see that while National Education Association members are politically mixed, the union’s political spending goes almost exclusively to liberal and leftist candidates and causes. One revealing table shows that teacher union leaders, while pretending to be men and women of the people, are heavily entrenched one-percenters who make more than ten times the salaries of many of their flock.
At book’s end, we meet the estimable Virginia Walden Ford, who took up the cause of school choice in Washington, D.C. and helped mobilize thousands of parents in support, which culminated in Congressional passage of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2004. It’s no secret that parental choice has the same effect on the teachers unions as the sight of the cross had on Dracula, and thusly, Ford had her own battles with the unions. (Her book detailing her extraordinary achievement, Voices, Choices, and Second Chances is a primer on how to bring Opportunity Scholarships to your state.) Ford, sweet on the outside, tough as nails on the inside, once prompted a reporter to write that “she just won’t go away” and that she was “annoyingly persistent.”
And so is Friedrichs. Buy her book. You will meet a remarkable woman. Ms. Ford, you have company in the “persistent” department, which I will amend to “delightfully, annoyingly persistent.”
God bless you both.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.