California Teachers' Lawsuit Highlights Unions' Abuse

Conservatives are eagerly anticipating the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’s hearing later this year of a lawsuit, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, brought by a group of public school teachers against the state’s powerful union over the collection of dues for political activities. The CTA argues that the teachers can easily opt out of the political portion of their dues, so essentially the dissident teachers have nothing to complain about.

The original complaint by the plaintiffs raises serious doubts about that. Under California’s “agency shop” law, teachers are not required to join the union, but are required to pay union dues, as a condition of employment. Of union expenditures, some 65%–by the union’s estimate–is “chargeable,” i.e. related to collective bargaining and not political activity. The only way to opt out of the remaining, “non-chargeable” part is to leave the union.

Leaving the union is difficult–far more difficult, as Alec Torres of the National Review points out, than simply checking the box to deny a $20 contribution to the union’s political action committee (which amounts to about 1% of total dues). Those teachers who opt out lose a variety of benefits, including disability insurance, that are only available to union members. In other words, for exercising free speech, teachers lose economic benefits.

The teachers further contend that some of the 65% of the union’s “chargeable” expenditures actually relate to highly-politicized issues such as school vouchers. In the complaint, they question the union’s calculations of the “chargeable” portion of a variety of programs, such as expenditures on “social justice” advocacy and the like. It will be the task of the Ninth Circuit, and perhaps the Supreme Court, to address these very fuzzy boundaries.

Critics of the lawsuit, including the unions, describe it as an attempt to achieve through the federal courts what conservatives failed to achieve through a 2012 referendum Proposition 32, that would have prevented unions from using dues for political purposes. Indeed, the broader goal of those who filed Freidrichs, including the Center for Individual Rights, is to challenge mandatory collective bargaining nationwide. Much will be at stake.


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