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Teachers sue to join union without paying for political activities

Unions claim new suit is attempt to weaken them in the name of protecting teacher rights.

An advocacy group has filed a lawsuit seeking to stop teachers unions in California from using member dues for political purposes unless individual instructors provide their permission.

The effort, if successful, could weaken the influence of these unions by limiting their spending.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in federal court by StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based organization that has opposed candidates and measures backed by teachers unions nationwide, while also working to pass laws that curtail union power.

In the suit, four teachers, including two from the Los Angeles Unified School District, assert that union rules and state laws violate their 1st Amendment rights to free speech because they cannot belong to the union unless they allow a portion of their dues to be spent on political activity. The teachers claim they should be able to join without subsidizing viewpoints they may oppose.

“As part of protecting the right to free speech,” the 1st Amendment does not permit forcing an individual “to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support,” the suit states.

The defendants are the two largest teachers unions in the country as well as the two largest in California. Also being sued are two union locals where three of the teachers work, including United Teachers Los Angeles. The suit also names the superintendents of L.A. Unified, West Contra Costa Unified and Arcadia Unified school districts.

Union leaders characterized the legal action as an attempt to limit what labor can accomplish against well-funded business interests and other opponents by cutting off funding.

“This lawsuit is attempting to use the 1st Amendment to stifle speech, not enhance it,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

In California, although teachers are not compelled to join a union, they must pay a portion of membership dues as “agency fees” to cover their estimated share of costs when the union negotiates contract terms on their behalf.

The remaining portion, which the plaintiffs pegged at 30% to 40%, can be spent on political activities. Union leaders pointed out that contributing this portion is optional.

The California Teaches Assn. “doesn’t require anyone to join the union or spend any dues money to support political candidates,” said the group's president, Dean E. Vogel. “Those who want to opt out of spending dues money on political candidates simply have to check a box on a CTA membership form. Educators can also decline union membership and opt out of paying for any issue not related to union representation.” 

The lawsuit, however, asserts that opting out and therefore declining to join the union means giving up advantages of union membership.

“Resigning union membership has significant adverse consequences for a teacher,” the complaint said. Union members, for example, have access to insurance and disability programs as well as legal representation.

"Across California, public school teachers are being forced to choose between important employment benefits like paid maternity leave and their own political values," said plaintiff Bhavini Bhakta, an Arcadia Unified teacher, in a statement. "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.”

The lawsuit argues that federally guaranteed 1st Amendment rights apply in this case, and that they should override practices in California.

"The 1st Amendment does not tolerate this unequal treatment based on a teacher's political views," said attorney Theodore J. Boutrous of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which is handling the case.

The Gibson firm also is managing the high-profile Vergara litigation, which resulted in an L.A. Superior Court judge last year throwing out key teacher job protections on the grounds that they were detrimental to students. That ruling is on appeal.

The latest litigation “is yet another in the endless string of anti-union, anti-teacher lawsuits that pretend to protect worker rights by undermining the most important organization that defends worker rights,” said Jeff Freitas, secretary treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers.

StudentsFirst was started by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. It is now headed by Jim Blew, who formerly oversaw education initiatives for the Walton Family Foundation. 

Twitter: @howardblume

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