By Kevin Mooney | Watchdog.org
Teachers who are not keen on the idea of paying for political activism that runs counter to their personal policy preferences have a significant stake in a legal challenge filed by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR). The case will very likely be decided before the U.S. Supreme Court where Terry Pell, the CIR president, likes his chances.
Here’s the problem.
In California, every public school teacher, including non-union members, must pay up to a couple hundred dollars each year for “chargeable” expenses for the teachers unions’ collective bargaining efforts. In addition, non-union teachers must navigate their way through an annual “opt out” process if they do not wish to pay for “non-chargeable” union expenses that involve lobbying efforts and political activism that occur outside the collective-bargaining process. This “agency-shop” arrangement violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and free association, according to the complaint filed by CIR on behalf of California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International in April. The suit names the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA) as the lead defendents.
“What we say in this suit is that teachers should not have to opt out of a system that compels the payment of dues, not just for political expenditures, but also for collective bargaining,” Pell told Watchdog.org in an interview. “The system of opting out assumes that collective bargaining is apolitical and that it serves the needs of all teachers and therefore no teacher should have the right to opt out of it. But we know based on how public employee unions work that collective bargaining is highly political.”
Since collective bargaining touches on subjects such as teacher pay, teacher benefits, teacher evaluation and classroom size, the process inevitably delves into pressing public policy questions, Pell explained.
“When the union negotiates a public employee contract it inevitably takes positions that mean taxes have to be raised and many teachers do not agree with this stance,” he said. “They do not think it is fair for public employee unions to continually negotiate contracts that require higher taxes while the economy is contracting.”
The CIR suit builds on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. Employees Intl. Union. In Knox, the high court ruled that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) violated the First Amendment rights of its non-union members by forcing them to pay a 25 percent increase in union dues without their consent to help fight ballot initiatives in California.
SEIU officials had created a special assessment to pay for political campaigns in an effort to counter several state ballot initiatives that were viewed as anti-union. But the assessment was instituted in a way that did not allow for anyone to opt out.
“The Supreme Court ruled that teachers should have had an opportunity to opt out,” Pell explained. “But in its ruling that court also said that it wasn’t sure teachers should be required to opt out of anything. The court then went a step further and said we’re not sure the First Amendment allows for compulsory collection of dues even for collective bargaining. That question did not have to be answered in Knox, but we read it and said ‘wait a minute’ we should take a case that does raise this question.”
The CIR legal challenge to the teachers unions has been filed with the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The case must be decided before the U.S. Supreme Court since it calls for reversing precedent.
“We don’t think the First Amendment allows the states to compel the collection of dues as a condition of employment that are used to promote viewpoints individuals may not agree with,” Pell said. “The real leverage of that case it would settle the close shop, open shop question for the country s as a whole. It would no longer have to be fought out state by state, like with Wisconsin. Instead, a Supreme Court decision would settle this this once and for all on the basis of the First Amendment. It would mean the 26closed shop states would become open shop states. This would be a whole sale decision of state law that would cover the country as a whole; would be a gigantic leap forward.”
Dues and agency fees produce significant revenues for the unions, according to a CIR press release. CTA’s revenue in 2011 was over $191 million, over $178 million of which came from membership dues and fees. For nonunion member teachers in California, annual union dues can exceed $1,000 per teacher.
Contact Kevin Mooney at KMooney@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @KevinMooneyDC