Lawsuit targets key funding source for teachers unions

A conservative group has joined with eight California educators in a lawsuit filed this week that seeks to eliminate the right of unions to collect mandatory “agency fees” from teachers — even if they are not full members.

Similar litigation challenging the fees failed last year when the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4, leaving the current policy in place. If this latest litigation were to reach the court following the confirmation of an appointee by President Trump, teachers unions could lose a key source of funding.

Agency fees, which are employed by unions in 23 states including California, are meant to cover the cost of representing teachers in such things as salary and benefit negotiations. Teachers can opt out of the portion of membership dues for activities labeled as political, but they still are on the hook for about two-thirds of the total.

For Los Angeles teachers, full union dues are $988 per year.

The complaint filed Monday in Santa Ana federal court asserts that most union activities, even salary and benefits negotiations, are “inherently political” because, for example, they involve decisions on how to use tax dollars.

“Forcing teachers to financially support causes that run counter to their political and policy beliefs is a clear violation of their 1st Amendment rights,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which is based in Washington, D.C. “Public school teachers deserve to choose for themselves, as many workers across the country do, whether or not to fund the union’s views.” 

One of the plaintiffs, Ryan Yohn, said he objected to the union’s support for laying off teachers based on seniority rather than performance evaluations.

“I have seen firsthand examples throughout the years where an amazing teacher … was bumped out of their classroom or laid off simply because they were new, young and temporary,” said Yohn, an employee of the Westminster School District in Orange County. 

But California Teachers Assn. President Eric C. Heins on Tuesday defended the fees, saying: “We bargain for the working conditions of teachers, which are the learning conditions of our students.” The goal of the latest lawsuit, he said, was “to weaken all unions and the voice of working people. It’s a political attack.”

Unions have been under assault on several legal fronts, including challenges to tenure protections.

The Center for Individual Rights receives major financial support from people and groups associated with anti-union positions.  

Even so, Pell said, “The fact remains that the case will put the decision of whether unions are good or bad into the hands of teachers themselves rather than the legislature, the courts or even CIR's donors." 

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The main difference between last year’s case and this one, Yohn vs. California Teachers Assn., is simply a new set of plaintiffs. The litigants also want to change the law so that the union would have to persuade teachers to opt in to membership rather than being automatically enlisted.

In the Friedrichs vs. CTA case last year, the outcome was hard to predict because past rulings by Justice Antonin Scalia — the likely swing vote in the case — could be read different ways. During the hearing, Scalia’s questions and comments seemed to presage a victory for Pell’s side. The case ended in the 4-4 decision after Scalia died.

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is said to be a jurist in the mold of Scalia. But, said Pell, Gorsuch “has not decided any cases like this.”

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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