Another lawsuit challenges teachers unions’ dues

April 6, 2015

A second group of California teachers has filed a lawsuit that’s a cousin to Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which is challenging the right of public employees’ unions to collect mandatory dues.

The latest lawsuit, Bain v. California Teachers Association, was filed Friday by the Sacramento-based advocacy organization StudentsFirst on behalf of four public school teachers suing the state’s two teachers unions and their national affiliates. In the lawsuit, the teachers focus only on the 35 to 40 percent of their dues payments that are used for political purposes, including donations to candidates and lobbying for legislation in Sacramento.

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.

“Across California, public school teachers are being forced to choose between important employment benefits like paid maternity leave and their own political values,” plaintiff Bhavini Bhakta, a teacher at the Arcadia Unified School District, said in a press release. “It’s unfair. 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.”

Along with the California Teachers Association, other defendants in the lawsuit are CTA’s parent union, the National Education Association, the California Federation of Teachers and its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. Both national unions are funded with a portion of teachers’ dues.

In a statement on Monday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten accused StudentsFirst of hypocrisy by trying to restrict the unions’ capacity to engage in the political process at the same time that it has worked “to stifle the voices of teachers, and strip them of collective bargaining and other rights and tools to do their jobs.”

“Sadly, this lawsuit is attempting to use the First Amendment to stifle speech, not enhance it,” Weingarten said.

A CTA spokesman said Monday it had not yet been served by the lawsuit and would have no immediate comment.

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. And, while no longer union members, the four plaintiffs in the case are required under California law to pay what’s called an agency fee, which is the non-political 60 to 65 percent portion of union dues covering bargaining-related expenses.

The lawsuit says that the unions provide supplemental benefits exclusively for union teachers to entice teachers to pay the portion of dues covering political activities. These benefits include better pay during maternity leave and free representation in disputes with the pension fund CalSTRS over retirement benefits and in discipline and dismissal actions that districts initiate.

“This legal representation makes it substantially more difficult for a school district to take adverse employment actions against a union member teacher than a non-member teacher,” the lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, stated. “This lawsuit seeks to remedy this extreme injustice to California’s educators, so that teachers can enjoy the same First Amendment rights as other Americans without being punished for exercising them.”

Along with Bhakta, the other plaintiffs in Bain v. CTA are April Bain and Kiechelle Russell, two teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Clare Sobetski, a union representative at Richmond High in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.

StudentsFirst, a national organization founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, supports charter schools and changing teacher employment laws. It’s being represented by the same team of high-powered attorneys from the Los Angeles law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher that won a big victory last year in Vergara v. the State of California. In that case, a state District Court judge overturned five state laws governing teacher layoffs, tenure and dismissals as unconstitutional. The case is now on appeal. Another organization, Students Matter, funded by Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur David Welch, brought that lawsuit; StudentsFirst has praised the ruling.

Bain v. CTA is narrower in focus than Friedrichs v. CTA et al. The Friedrichs lawsuit, filed two years ago, is challenging teachers’ obligation to pay public-sector unions to represent them. It challenges a landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld state laws that compel public-sector workers to pay agency fees that underwrite unions’ collective bargaining costs. Two dozen states, including California, have passed compulsory dues laws. If the 10 non-union California teachers represented in the Friedrichs suit win their case, then the CTA and CFT would lose the authority to automatically deduct hundreds of millions of dollars a year in dues from the paychecks of both members and non-members.

Based on the experience of states with “right-to-work” laws that ban compulsory union dues, the unions most likely would see a decline in their revenues and their influence. A Washington, D.C., libertarian nonprofit law firm, The Center for Individual Rights, which brought the Friedrichs lawsuit, is waiting to hear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will take the case for its fall 2015 session.

Bain v. CTA raises a different issue and would move forward regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision on Friedrichs, said Joshua Lipshutz, an attorney in the case.

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