Four California teachers are suing their unions over the use of member dues for political activities, opening a new legal front against unions that are already facing a separate challenge to their ability to collect dues from all teachers.
The plaintiffs argue that unions are violating their constitutional right to free speech by forcing them to either support union-favored causes and candidates or lose access to important job benefits. At stake are tens of millions of dollars in dues collected by the state’s two largest teachers unions.
“This case is about fairness,” said Joshua Lipshutz, one of three lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “It’s a group of teachers who don’t want to be treated like second-class citizens because they’re exercising their First Amendment right to not support the political activities of their unions.”
In California, teachers are required to pay dues to support union activities that benefit all teachers, such as collective bargaining. They can opt out of paying the portion of dues — about 30 to 40 percent, depending on the school district — that go toward political activities.
But if they opt out, they aren’t considered full members of their union, which means they can’t vote in union elections, can’t vote on whether to ratify the union’s collective bargaining agreements, and aren’t eligible for certain benefits, including disability and life insurance.
“By withholding these benefits from nonmembers, the unions, under color of state law, punish teachers for refusing to contribute to the unions’ political and ideological expenditures,” says the complaint, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California.
Currently fewer than 10 percent of the state’s 295,000 teachers opt out of paying full dues, according to the complaint. Lipshutz said the number is low because teachers stand to lose too much if they give up their full membership. The suit seeks to force a change in rules so teachers can be full members without contributing to the union’s political work.
Financial backing for the lawsuit comes from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has battled unions over issues ranging from teacher evaluation to charter schools. Defendants include the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and its California chapter, the California Teachers Association. Also named are the American Federation of Teachers and its California unit, the California Federation of Teachers.
In 2011, $178 million of the California Teachers Association’s $191 million in revenue came from dues, according to the complaint. The CTA spent millions lobbying on education and other issues in California, according to the complaint, and donated almost exclusively to the Democratic Party despite the fact that many of its members are not Democrats. Its parent organization, the National Education Association, did the same at the federal level, the complaint says, lobbying on issues including gun control and health care.
“The Bain lawsuit attacks the right of a membership organization to restrict the benefits of membership to those who actually pay dues,” Alice O’Brien, general counsel for the NEA, said in a statement. “No court has accepted the notion that providing benefits only to members violates the First Amendment. We are confident that this latest attack by StudentsFirst will be equally unsuccessful.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the lawsuit is part of a siege against unions by StudentsFirst.
“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,” Weingarten said in a statement.
“The suit cites political activity on issues it considers unrelated to education — like gun control, for example. One wonders how anyone would not consider that an issue for students and educators, in the aftermath of tragedies like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Sadly, this lawsuit is attempting to use the First Amendment to stifle speech, not enhance it.”
Read the complaint:
The plaintiffs’ legal team is the same team that successfully argued last year that teacher tenure protections violate poor children’s civil rights by saddling them with weak teachers who are difficult to fire. That landmark case, Vergara v. California, is now under appeal.
Lipshutz said that the new case, Bain v. California Teachers Association, grew out of Vergara as lawyers talked to teachers who supported the effort to strike down tenure laws — a position that put those teachers at odds with the teachers unions to which they each pay dues of more than $1,000 each year.
Bhavini Bhakta, one of the four plaintiffs in the new case, was a witness in the Vergara trial. She testified that she was laid off five times in nine years because of laws that protect teachers based on seniority instead of effectiveness.
“I appreciate my union and want to stay a member. But I don’t want to be forced to fund political activities that contradict my core beliefs about education,” Bhakta said in a news release.
California’s teacher unions are also facing a separate, sweeping lawsuit that challenges their ability to require all teachers to pay dues regardless of whether they choose to join the union.
The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to grant a hearing in that case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. A victory by the plaintiffs in that case could have far-reaching effects on public-sector unions in the 26 states whose laws, like California’s, allow unions to collect dues from all employees regardless of membership status.