Posts

Bain Explained

Bain v. CTA is the latest lawsuit to challenge teacher union hegemony.

For the third time in three years, a lawsuit has been filed in California that challenges the way the teachers unions do business. In May 2012, eight California public school children filed Vergara et al v. the State of California et al in an attempt to “strike down outdated state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers.” Realizing that some of their most cherished work rules were in jeopardy, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) chose to join the case as defendants in May 2013.

But three days before they signed on to Vergara, the unions were targeted again. On April 29, 2013, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit on behalf of ten California teachers against CTA and the National Education Association (NEA). The Friedrichs case challenges the constitutionality of California’s agency shop law, which forces public school educators to pay dues to a teachers union whether they want to or not.

Now in April 2015, the teachers unions are facing yet another rebellion by some of its members. Bain et al v. CTA et al, a lawsuit brought by StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based activist outfit founded by Michelle Rhee, was filed on behalf of four public school teachers in federal court in California. It challenges a union rule concerning members who refuse to pay the political portion of their dues. Contrary to what many believe, teachers are not forced to join a union as a condition of employment in California, but they are forced to pay dues. Most pay the full share, typically over $1,000 a year, but some opt out of paying the political or “non-chargeable” part, which brings their yearly outlay down to about $600. However, to become “agency fee payers,” those teachers must resign from the union and relinquish most perks they had by being full dues-paying members. And this is at the heart of Bain. As EdSource’s John Fensterwald writes,

Although paying this portion is optional, the teachers charge that the unions punish those who choose not to pay it by kicking them out of the union and denying them additional economic benefits, such as better disability and life insurance policies. The unions provide those benefits only to members. This coercion, the teachers argue, violates their constitutional right to free speech. About one in 10 teachers in California have opted out of paying the portion of dues supporting politicking and lobbying.

In addition to losing various types of insurance, the affected teachers also give up the right to vote for their union rep or their contract, the chance to sit on certain school committees, legal representation in cases of employment disputes, death and dismemberment compensation, disaster relief, representation at dismissal hearings and many other benefits.

The question becomes, “Why should a teacher lose a whole array of perks just because they refuse to pay the third or so (it varies by district) of their union dues that go to political causes?”

That very sensible question summons up a great number of erroneous statements, hysteria, lies and general panic among the mainstream media and unionistas alike. Let’s examine a few of them starting with a partial-truth from the estimable John Fensterwald. He wrote, “Both the CTA and CFT are obligated to negotiate contracts dealing with pay, benefits and working conditions on behalf of union and non-union teachers.” That’s true; all teachers do indeed become “bargaining unit members.” However, that is only because the unions insist on exclusive representation. The unions would have a case here if teachers were free to negotiate their own contracts, but they aren’t allowed to. (For more on this issue, see my back-and-forth with CFT VP Gary Ravani in the comments section of Fensterwald’s piece.)

A Los Angeles Times editorial claims that the case at its core is “an attack on the power of any public employee union to engage in politics.” How they came up with that assessment defies logic. If Bain is successful, unions will still be free to “engage in politics.” It is true that more teachers may opt out of the political part, thus leaving the union with fewer coerced dollars to spend. But to say it is an “attack” is a great exaggeration.

Alice O’Brien, general counsel for NEA, said in a statement, “The Bain lawsuit attacks (there’s that word again) the right of a membership organization to restrict the benefits of membership to those who actually pay dues.” What?! The teachers in question are all dues payers and will still be dues payers if their case is successful.

Never one to be subtle, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten claims that the lawsuit is “part of a siege against unions by StudentsFirst.” (Before starting StudentsFirst, Rhee – now departed – was Washington, D.C. school chancellor, where she and Weingarten tangled constantly.) In a statement Weingarten said, “This is the same group that has worked for five years to stifle the voices of teachers, and strip them of collective bargaining and other rights and tools to do their jobs.” Then as if to clarify this baseless statement, she added, “The suit cites political activity on issues it considers unrelated to education – like gun control, for example.”

The Friedrichs case, with a possible Supreme Court decision next year, is much further along than Bain. If the former case is successful, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the latter. Friedrichs claims that all union spending is political and therefore joining should be voluntary. If it flies, teachers will have an option to join the union or refrain from doing so. That could take the wind out of Bain’s sails as there will probably not be the two tiers or classes of membership that there are now. If all dues are political and you join the union, then all fees will be chargeable and teachers couldn’t then opt out of the political portion because all of it would be political. However, should Friedrichs fail, Bain will be all the more important.

Other scenarios are possible, with the courts, of course, having the final say on how it all gets sorted out.

In any event, the teachers unions’ heavy-handed political arm-twisting would seem to be in jeopardy and their days of unbridled power numbered. And that can only be good news for teachers, students, parents and taxpayers.

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.

Fifty States of Right-to-Work?

Elected officials, the courts and John Q. Public are supporting worker freedom these days; teachers unions and other public employee unions are on the run.

Last Monday, Illinois governor Bruce Rauner issued an executive order that, if it stands, will absolve state workers from paying forced dues to a union. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Rauner declared that Illinois’s contracts with public unions “violate the First Amendment by forcing workers to associate with the union against their will.” Rauner instructed all state agencies to keep the workers’ dues in escrow, pending the outcome of a federal court lawsuit that he filed the same day.

Needless to say, the unions and their friends in Springfield aren’t doing cartwheels over his right-to-work (RTW) directive. Even prior to the order, the teachers unions had targeted the recently elected governor. Two weeks ago, Chicago Teachers Union boss Karen Lewis attacked Rauner, accusing him of being (Wisconsin governor) “Scott Walker on steroids.” Also before the announcement, local teacher union lobbyist Matthew Johansson declared that the governor is trying to “destroy us.”

After the announcement, Illinois Education Association president Cinda Klickna said that the attack on “fair share is extremely serious and will be monitored very carefully.” She added, “This attack is clearly intended to weaken the unions that fight for the middle class and for the students who attend our schools. We can’t let that happen.” The Illinois Federation of Teachers referred to the action as a “blatant abuse of power.”

The reality – beyond the union harrumphing and all-around hysteria – is this: In 26 states and D.C., workers are forced to pay unions as a condition of employment. The unions call this “fair share” because they say all workers benefit from their collective bargaining efforts. But if a worker doesn’t want to be part of the collective, he/she still must belong because the union demands monopoly status; a worker is not allowed to bargain on his/her own or hire another party to do so.

Hence RTW is quite simply an individual-rights issue. The workers the unions refer to as “free riders” are really “forced riders.” If you were going from Point A to Point B and wanted to walk, how would you feel if someone told you that you had to take the bus … and, of course, pay for the ride to boot?

Very importantly, not only does RTW liberate workers, it has many other far-reaching benefits. After Michigan became a RTW state in 2012, the West Michigan Policy Forum reported, “… of the 10 states with the highest rate of personal income growth, eight have right-to-work laws. Those numbers are driving a net migration from forced union states: Between 2000 and 2010, five million people moved to right-to-work states from compulsory union states.”

Also, in a new economic profile, the Illinois Policy Institute’s Paul Kersey reports that RTW states are much stronger economically than their forced-dues counterparts:

  • From 2002 to 2012, states with right-to-work laws saw a 7.2 percent increase in payroll employment, compared to a 2 percent increase in other states.
  • As of September 2014, right-to-work states had an average unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, compared to 6 percent in non-right-to-work states.
  • From 2000 to 2010, right-to-work states saw population growth that was twice as fast as that in other states (13.6 percent compared to 7.3 percent).
  • Median wages in right-to-work states appear $4,345 lower than in other states. However, once you take into account cost of living and local taxes, right-to-work state wages rise. In fact, the cost of living is 16.6 percent higher in states without right-to-work laws.
  • Right-to-work economies grew by 62 percent from 2002 to 2012, compared to just 46.5 percent growth in other states.

Much to the unions’ consternation, the RTW movement is picking up momentum across the country. Politico’s Brian Mahoney reports that legislation has been introduced in New Mexico, Missouri, West Virginia and Kentucky.

The bills have already cleared committee hurdles in New Mexico and Missouri. All but the Missouri bill were introduced by Republicans; in Missouri, the measure was introduced by state Rep. Courtney Curtis, a Democrat and an African-American who would limit right to work to the construction industry to combat what he sees as bias in minority contracting. In Kentucky, right-to-work ordinances have been passed in five counties, though it isn’t clear federal law allows the adoption of right to work anywhere except at the state and territorial level. Legal challenges are already underway.

Additionally, the American people are strong supporters of RTW laws. In a poll conducted right before Labor Day last year, Gallup found that 82 percent of Americans agree that “no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will.” Also, as Mike Antonucci reports, by a 2-1 margin – 64 to 32 percent – “Americans disagree that workers should ‘have to join and pay dues to give the union financial support’ because ‘all workers share the gains won by the labor union.’”

Much of the recent RTW activity has been undoubtedly spurred by the June 2014 Harris v Quinn Supreme Court decision, in which SCOTUS agreed with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, ruling that homecare workers in Illinois could not be forced to join the Service Employees International Union.

And in the legal on-deck circle is Friedrichs et al v CTA, which is on a path to reach SCOTUS within a few months. This litigation has ten teachers and the Christian Educators Association International – a union alternative – taking on the California Teachers Association with a lawsuit aimed squarely at California’s “agency-shop” law, which forces teachers to pay dues for collective bargaining activities. The Center for Individual Rights is representing the teachers, with help from Jones Day, an international law firm.

So, let’s see – RTW is gaining favor in state houses, the courts and with the citizenry. And please keep in mind, no one is talking about outlawing unions; RTW is simply about making them voluntary associations, just like every other organization in the U.S. Really nothing controversial, unless you are a wolf that preys on workers … all the while pretending to be a shepherd.

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.

Union-dues case moves closer to Supreme Court

Sometimes you win by losing.

That’s precisely what occurred last week, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the motion by Rebecca Friedrichs’ attorneys to decide her case (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association) on the basis of the pleadings, without a trial or additional oral arguments.

The “loss” actually means that plaintiffs – several California public school teachers – can immediately file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court without having to wait the one to two years it usually takes to get a case through the 9th Circuit before appealing to the Supreme Court. The Center for Individual Rights – counsel for Friedrichs and the other teacher plaintiffs – worked to expedite the proceedings. Essentially, they elected to “lose” in the lower courts, reinforcing their contention that only the Supreme Court has authority to grant them their petitioned relief.

The ruling was the result of a tactical maneuver by plaintiffs to get their motion for a decision on the pleadings in front of a motions panel that is assigned monthly to consider procedural motions rather than allowing it to languish until a panel could be assigned to hear the substantive appeal. The motions panel ruled there is nothing of substance to decide in Friedrichs because it is governed by past Supreme Court precedent, which the 9th Circuit is powerless to overturn.

According to plaintiff’s counsel Terry Pell, “This is a big development. It means we are within spitting distance of the Supreme Court. It also means that Friedrichs is all but certain to be the case where the court either allows compulsory dues to continue or ends the practice. It leaves no middle ground.”

Plaintiffs anticipate the court will take the case in spring 2015, with a 2016 decision.

Friedrichs involves a state’s right to require public employees, including teachers, to pay union dues, called “agency shop” laws. Twenty-six states, including California, require such. Friedrichs argues this violates free-speech rights.

Friedrichs has national implications. “This case is about the right of teachers to decide for themselves whether they want to join a union. If we win, we will not just strike down the law in California but compulsory union-dues laws nationally,” Pell explained.

While California teachers are not required to join the union, they still must pay union dues, but they can get a refund of the approximately one-third of dues that CTA claims goes toward political action.

Plaintiffs argue the case concerns the First Amendment right of public employees to decide for themselves whether to join and financially support a union. Their case argues that collective bargaining activities are just as political as anything else the union does, and contend that the government cannot compel individuals to financially support the political positions taken by unions in collective bargaining negotiations.

CTA has argued that compulsory dues are needed to prevent employees from “free riding” – gaining the benefits of union membership, including collective bargaining on their behalf, without paying for them.

Last June, the Supreme Court stopped short of doing away with compulsory dues in a 5-4 ruling in Harris v. Quinn.

I recently opined on the outsized political influence CTA wields on California legislative policy and elections. With 325,000 members, and the collection of mandatory dues from members, it usually gets its way in the Capitol, and in most elections. If the Supreme Court rules that individual public employees are not bound to pay dues to their unions, CTA’s money chest – and its political hegemony – will be diminished, inextricably altering the balance of power in California.

This is the case that may decide it all: hence, all eyes are on it.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

Interview With Rebecca Friedrichs – Fighting for Teacher Freedom

In April 2013, the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), as noted on their website, “filed suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International, challenging the constitutionality of California’s “agency shop” law, which violates the First Amendment by forcing public school teachers who are not members of the union to nonetheless pay annual dues. The suit was filed against the lead defendants, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), as well as ten affiliated local teachers’ unions, and local school officials.”

By December 2013 the case had moved from district court to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and it is now poised to move to the U.S. Supreme Court and could be heard as early as April 2015.

This case has the potential to dramatically change the rules governing public sector unions; how they acquire members, and how they collect dues. Education reformer Larry Sand, in an essay entitled “Will the Supreme Court End Forced Unionism?,” writing for Heartland, had this to say about the case:

“This litigation has ten teachers and the Christian Educators Association International—a union alternative—taking on the California Teachers Association with a lawsuit aimed squarely at California’s “agency-shop” law which forces teachers to pay dues for collective bargaining, although—per Abood—paying for the unions’ political agenda is not mandatory. The plaintiffs’ lawyers argue collective bargaining is inherently political and thus all union dues should be voluntary.”

Friedrichs was recently interviewed by Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson. What follows is the transcript of their interview. Click here to view the video.

INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA FRIEDRICHS

Carlson:  A group of California teachers is suing the CTA, the California Teachers Association, the biggest union in the state, for using their union dues for political donations. They claim the union has no right to spend their money on candidates they disagree with. Joining us now is the lead plaintiff in that case, Rebecca Friedrichs. Thank you for joining us this morning.

Friedrichs:  Hi, thanks for having me Tucker.

Carlson:  So you’ve been in the union for decades in California, the most politically powerful union that gives more money to candidates than any other union, and you’ve watched your dues go to things you disagree with. Have you complained about it?

Friedrichs:  Yes I have Tucker, here in California teacher’s rights are being trampled upon. We have no right, we are forced as a condition of employment to pay these fees, and I started complaining about that immediately at the beginning of my teaching career, after as a student teacher I watched as an older teacher who had tenure – which gave her permanent employment – was treating her little first graders horribly. It was horrible to watch. So I started complaining right away and I was bullied and shunned, and I even became a union rep., and complained to the union officials, they bullied me as well, and that’s when I realized it was hopeless to try to change things within union culture. As teachers, we should have the right to decide for ourselves who to support and where our money should go politically.

Carlson:  Just like every other American, but the union takes a series of very predictable left wing positions, some of which have nothing apparently to do with education or teaching, for example, spending I think more than any other group on the gay marriage proposition. No matter what side you’re on, it’s kind of hard to see what that has to with teaching.

Friedrichs:  That is very true Tucker, the unions are so out of touch with what is going on in the classroom and with what’s going on in California and the nation, and they get involved in any far left progressive cause. That’s where they sit, with far left progressive causes, and it doesn’t matter whether it has anything to do with my job, it doesn’t matter to them whether it harms my students. It’s their political agenda, I pay for it, teachers across America are paying for this agenda. We believe that’s wrong. We believe it’s time to consider the individual rights, instead of the rights of these unions to spend their money on their agenda at our cost.

Carlson: So just to back up and ask the most obvious of all questions, schools exist and taxpayers support them for only one reason, and that’s to educate children. Do you think the CTA helps kids in California?

Friedrichs:  I do not. They’re out of touch. One of the things that the unions fight in California – they fight tooth and nail, to the tune of multiple millions – they fight parental choice in education. I don’t understand that. A parent should have a choice to place a child in a school that’s best for that child. And if a school is underperforming, that family should have the right to place the child some place where that child is going to learn. You can only do first grade once, you can only do fourth grade once, you don’t get another chance. The unions fight parental choice. I don’t get it. They don’t exist to protect children, they don’t exist to protect teachers, they exist to push their own agenda – in my opinion – at the expense of children and teachers. And that is why it is time to set aside the rights of these big unions and bring back the rights of the individual. Give us our constitutional rights to freedom of speech.

Will the Supreme Court Do an “Abood Face?”

The decision in Harris v Quinn could be just the first shoe to drop in the fight against forced union dues.

Last month was not kind to Big Labor. First, the teachers unions in California had some of their favorite work rules knocked out of the state constitution by Judge Rolf Treu in his Vergara decision. Then, on the last day of the month, the Supreme Court agreed with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Harris v Quinn and ruled that homecare workers could not be forced to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Vergara upset the teacher union Pooh-Bahs who just can’t believe that educators who hang on to their jobs for 16 months aren’t entitled to them for life, regardless of whether they’re good, mediocre or teachers from hell. The decision is going to be appealed and no one knows –  if the appeal fails – how the subsequent replacement laws will play out. But if Vergara got the unions in a snit, Harris has pushed them into apoplexy.

Regarding Harris, I searched the internet long and hard to find a statement from a union leader that went something like this:

The decision doesn’t harm the union movement in the least. It gives hard working men and women the freedom to choose whether or not to join us. If they do join, they will enjoy the benefits and perks that come with union membership. If they choose not to join, we will not force them to. They are free to make whatever deal that they and their employer agree to. As patriotic Americans, we believe in liberty and that means giving all workers a choice.

Okay, I confess. I really didn’t search long and hard. In fact, I didn’t search at all; it would have been a complete waste of time. Instead, we were treated to union leaders doing what they usually do when they don’t get their way: trot out the usual half-truths, fear-mongering and lies to rally the troops and garner public sympathy.  Chalkbeat reports,

‘This court has built a record of weakening the rights of both voters and working families; no one should be surprised by this decision,’ said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a statement.

Weingarten is saying  that one working family has a right to force a member of another working family into a union.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, defended the ‘fair share’ practice. ‘Fair share simply makes sure that all educators share the cost of negotiations for benefits that all educators enjoy, regardless of whether they are association members.’

There is nothing fair about forcing a worker to pay dues to an organization that he or she does not want to belong to.

The NEA website goes deeper into the “fair share” philosophy:

All union members who enjoy the benefits, rights, and protections of a contract should, in fairness, and must, according to Illinois state law, contribute to maintaining that contract. Sometimes called ‘agency fee,’ fair share is a percentage of full union dues, based on the actual cost of collective bargaining, contract maintenance, and other services provided to all union members. 

Well yes, all those who benefit from the union contract, should pay dues. But if they don’t want any part of your contract, why are you trying to force them to pay you?

Mind you, Harris was a narrow decision. Justice Samuel Alito’s ruling drew a distinction between the home care workers and ‘full-fledged’ public employees

… who were required to pay union dues under the Court’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education precedent in 1977. In that sense unions dodged a more sweeping decision that could have jeopardized dues payments from all public workers.

But – and this is what’s scaring the spit out of unionistas – Alito added that Abood (which maintains that it is illegal to withhold forced dues from dissenters beyond the cost of collective bargaining) is “questionable on several grounds.” Collective bargaining issues, he wrote, “are inherently political in the public sector.”

In the private sector, the line is easier to see. Collective bargaining concerns the union’s dealings with the employer; political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government… But in the public sector, both collective bargaining and political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government. (Emphasis added.)

Clearly, Alito left the door open for the court to do something of an “Abood face.” The next shoe that drops could lead to the unions’ worst nightmare – making union membership optional nationwide. (At this time 26 states are forced union states, while 24 are right-to-work.)

In fact, that “next shoe” is awaiting a fitting. Friedrichs et al v CTA is on a path to reach SCOTUS within a year or two. This litigation has ten teachers and the Christian Educators Association International – a union alternative – taking on the California Teachers Association with a lawsuit aimed squarely at California’s “agency-shop” law, which forces teachers to pay dues for collective bargaining activities, though – as per Abood – paying for the unions’ political agenda is not mandatory. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are challenging the law, claiming collective bargaining is inherently political and that all union dues should be voluntary.

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm representing Rebecca Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs, was upbeat after the Harris ruling was announced.

Today’s decision is a good sign of things to come. The Court will soon have before it another union dues case, one that asks it to recognize the First Amendment rights of all employees to decide whether to pay union dues, not just home healthcare workers.

He importantly added,

We’re not attacking collective bargaining. … That’s not at issue. All we’re saying is individual teachers get to decide whether to pay dues to that organization. You can have collective bargaining and you can have a strong union, but you don’t have to have compulsory dues.

If Friedrichs is successful, and the court overturns Abood, workers will have a choice. To paraphrase President Obama, “If you like your union, you can keep your union.” But if you don’t, you can’t be forced to join. Freedom of choice – sounds like the American way to me.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

California Lawsuit Challenges Mandatory Agency Fees

If the California Teachers Association and its parent, the National Education Association, represent Goliath, then ten teachers and a small union alternative called the Christian Educators Association International are fitting stand-ins for David. They’re taking on the CTA with a lawsuit aimed squarely at California’s “agency-shop” law, which they claim violates public school teachers’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to pay annual union fees, even when they’re not union members. The Washington, D.C.–based Center for Individual Rights is representing the teachers, with help from Jones Day, an international law firm. Needless to say, the CTA isn’t happy. Spokesman Frank Wells denounced the suit as a “baseless challenge intended to dilute worker rights,” insisting that “the concept of agency fees is sound.”

But is it? California law does allow for “mandatory monopoly bargaining,” which means, where public education is concerned, that teachers must pay dues or “fees” to a labor union in order to work at a public school. Teachers may “resign” from the union, which frees them from paying the portion of their dues that would be spent for politics. They’re still required, though, to pay an “agency fee” for other union services, such as collective bargaining—whether they want those services or not. And even if a teacher does resign from the union, he must send a letter every year by a specified date to receive a rebate for the political portion of his dues. In short, the onus is on the teacher if he wants the union to respect his independence.

The rationale for collective-bargaining fees is that even nonmembers benefit from collective bargaining; there should be no “free riders.” But the line between what counts as a “chargeable” fee and what constitutes outright political activity has become blurrier over the years. As the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue, unions use their power “to extract compulsory fees as a convenient method of forcing teachers to pay for activities that have little to do with collective bargaining.” They point to The California Educator, CTA’s highly political magazine, which the union claims as a chargeable collective-bargaining expense. They also note how union leaders deemed a recent Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender (GLBT) conference to be “predominantly chargeable.” The plaintiffs also maintain that the NEA, which receives a portion of fees from every CTA member, classifies expenditures that have little to do with collective bargaining—such as expensive staff junkets—as chargeable.

Thus, the teacher-plaintiffs want the court to “declare that California’s practice of forcing non-union members to contribute funds to unions, including funds to support their collective-bargaining activities, violates the First Amendment, and enjoin Defendants [the union] from enforcing this unconstitutional arrangement.” The legal terrain for such an argument is more favorable than it has ever been, thanks to recent Supreme Court rulings.

Some background: in 1977, in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Court ruled that compulsory dues are unconstitutional and that unions could collect only those fees necessary for collective bargaining and sundry other representational activities. (The justices extended their ruling to private unions 11 years later, in Communication Workers of America v. Beck.) In 1986, in Teachers v. Hudson, the Court set out specific requirements that unions must meet to collect fees from nonmembers without violating their First Amendment rights. But nonmembers blanched as unions took a more expansive interpretation of the Court’s decisions. And so the justices last year issued a somewhat sterner rebuke in Knox v. Service Employees International Union,Local 1000. In that case, brought by the National Right to Work Foundation, the justices ruled 7–2 that the SEIU could not force its nonmembers to pay the portion of union dues spent on political activities—even if the union believed it was for the workers’ own good. In 2005 and 2006, as part of its campaign to defeat Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and a pair of ballot initiatives that would reduce union power and reform pensions, the SEIU imposed a temporary, 25 percent across-the-board dues hike on its dues-paying members and some 28,000 fee-paying nonmembers alike. The union argued that campaigning against the initiatives would benefit all workers. Had this view prevailed, it would have eradicated the legal distinction between politics and collective bargaining. But even liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw through it and voted with the majority.

Further, Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in Knox raised two crucial points that may bode ill for future forced political activity by public-sector unions, especially as it pertains to nonmembers. Alito said that the unions’ existing “opt-out” rules aren’t sufficient to protect individuals. “An opt-out system creates a risk that the fees paid by nonmembers will be used to further political and ideological ends with which they do not agree,” he wrote. Instead, unions should afford nonmembers the chance to “opt in” to special fees if they want to contribute to organized political campaigns. At the same time, Alito questioned whether public employees who want no part of the union should have to pay fees at all. “[B]y allowing unions to collect any fees from nonmembers and by permitting unions to use opt-out rather than opt-in schemes when annual dues are billed, our cases have substantially impinged upon the First Amendment rights of nonmembers,” Alito wrote. “In the new situation presented here, we see no justification for any further impingement. The general rule—individuals should not be compelled to subsidize private groups or private speech—should prevail.”

The Center for Individual Rights cites Knox in the opening paragraph of its suit. How things will play out in district court in California isn’t clear yet. But it’s worth noting that right now, workers in 26 states and the District of Columbia must pay union dues as a condition of employment. The other 24 states are “right-to-work” states, where workers can choose whether or not to join. If the California case winds up before the Supreme Court, the justices will get an opportunity to extend their Knox reasoning to its logical conclusion and give all workers a real choice.

Larry Sand, a retired teacher, is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. This article originally appeared in City Journal on July 11th, entitled “Opportunity Knox,” and is republished here with permission from the author and the publisher.

Opportunity Re-Knox

A recently filed lawsuit in California picks up where Knox v. SEIU left off.

In a case brought to the Supreme Court by the National Right to Work Foundation last June, the justices ruled 7-2 that the Service Employees International Union could not force its members to pay the part of union dues that goes for political activities, even if the union felt it was for the workers’ own good. As I wrote at the time,

Actually this decision didn’t break any new ground. Unions haven’t been allowed to force workers to pay for their political agenda since the 1970s and 1980s when several landmark decisions were handed down by the court. But SEIU Local 1,000 in California tried to hoodwink the rank and file. The case probably never should have reached the high court, but their involvement became necessary in order to overturn a decision from the far left Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (or as it’s affectionately known to us left coasters – the Ninth Circus), which has become a regular occurrence these days.

The Wall Street Journal explained the specifics of SEIU’s chicanery,

The California SEIU local attempted to end run these protections in a special 2005 election and the midterms in 2006, amid a furious debate about union government perks. The SEIU joined a “Political Fight-Back Fund” to defeat two propositions that would have given then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the ability in some cases to modify salaries, benefits and pensions. To fund this advocacy, the SEIU imposed a temporary 25% hike in union dues, never providing its 28,000 non-union members the Hudson notice that would have let them opt out.

The SEIU argued that lobbying against the ballot initiatives was really work on behalf of all workers. Yet that would erase the legal distinction between politics and collective bargaining. These activities may be especially fungible in public employee practice already, but this was too much even for liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who concurred with the majority on the narrow if obvious grounds of technical precedent.

The chutzpah here is dazzling. As Steve Greenhut noted,

It’s ironic that SEIU took money from nonmembers to specifically battle a statewide proposition that would have stopped them from being able to take such money in the future. There’s something disturbingly totalitarian about that – making me give you money that you can use to stop me from exerting my rights.

In a lesser-known but very important ruling, the court went beyond Knox and addressed two larger issues:

1. Should union members have to opt out of paying the political part of union dues? (The way things stand, the default position is “in” and a worker must take action to opt out.) With Justice Samuel Alito writing the opinion,

… the court concluded that a longstanding precedent — that the First Amendment demands that non-union members covered by union contracts be given the chance to “opt out” of such special fees — was insufficient. Instead, the majority said, non-members should be sent a notice giving them the chance to “opt in” to the special fees. (Emphasis added)

2. Should public employees be forced to pay any union dues at all? (At this time, workers in 26 states and Washington, D.C. must pay union dues as a condition of employment. The other 24 states are “right-to-work” states where workers can choose whether or not to join.) Alito again,

Because a public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences, the compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights. (Emphasis added.)

As Huffington Post blogger Cole Stangler wrote at the time,

Knox v. SEIU could lay the foundation for future legal challenges over unions’ political spending and the dues collection process in general.

And lay the foundation it did on both counts.

Last week, the Center for Individual Rights, in conjunction with international law firm Jones Day, filed a suit in California. CIR’s press release explains that the litigation was initiated

… on behalf of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International, challenging the constitutionality of California’s “agency shop” law, which violates the First Amendment by forcing public school teachers to pay annual fees to support powerful teachers’ unions extensively involved in political activity. The suit was filed against the lead defendants, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), as well as ten affiliated local teachers’ unions, and local school officials.

The lawyers in this case claim that the lines between “chargeable” or “agency fee” and “political” are very blurry and that the unions use their power

… to extract compulsory fees as a convenient method of forcing teachers to pay for activities that have little to do with collective bargaining. For example, the CTA considers the publication and dissemination of The California Educator, its internal and highly political magazine, to be a mostly “chargeable” collective bargaining expense. The CTA likewise deems programs dealing with gays and lesbians, including a “GLBT Conference,” to be predominantly “chargeable.” Also, the CTA spends millions of dollars every year on political contributions, mostly to support Democratic Party causes. The NEA, which receives a portion of the fees paid by every California public school teacher, likewise classifies expenditures as chargeable even though they appear to have little to do with collective bargaining, such as programs advancing various education policies or expensive conferences for NEA staff.

The litigation also addresses right-to-work issues,

Given the severe and ongoing infringement of Plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and free association, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court declare that California’s practice of forcing non-union members to contribute funds to unions, including funds to support their collective-bargaining activities, violates the First Amendment, and enjoin Defendants from enforcing this unconstitutional arrangement.

Needless to say, the unions are not happy about the lawsuit. CTA spokesman Frank Wells, speaking in boilerplate language, said that it is a “baseless challenge intended to dilute worker rights.” He went on to say that the claims are “another baseless attack on the concept of agency fees” and that “the concept of agency fees is sound.”

If the suit isn’t settled at the local level, it could wind up in the Supreme Court. Should that happen, the justices could take their opinion in Knox one step further and make joining a union voluntary. What a victory for liberty that would be! Greenhut is right – there is something indeed “disturbingly totalitarian” about forced union dues. It’s time to take Knox to its logical conclusion and give all workers the freedom to choose.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.