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A judge throws out a challenge to how unions spend teachers' money

A federal judge in Los Angeles has dismissed a lawsuit that, if successful, would have hindered the ability of teachers unions to raise money to engage in political activity.

The suit, Bain vs. California Teachers Assn., was filed in April by four teachers with support from the group StudentsFirst and a legal team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Both the group and law firm have been involved in other attempts to change the legal landscape involving teachers' rights and union influence.

In this case, the teachers involved were fighting for the right to belong to their local union without their dues being used against their will for political causes.

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Teachers don’t have to belong to a union, but if they decide to, their dues will support union activities whether they agree with them or not.

If they opt out of union membership, teachers in California still must pay “agency fees” --  an amount designated to cover the cost of union efforts on their behalf. These teachers also lose out on members-only benefits, which can include such perks as disability insurance and paid family leave. And only members can vote in union elections.

The plaintiffs argued that unions have been violating their free speech rights.

In his opinion, Judge Stephen V. Wilson acknowledged that “unions engage in significant political and ideological expenditures against the will of many of their members,” noting that the CTA spent more than $211 million for political purposes from 2000 through 2009. “Some teachers do not support education-related measures supported by the unions, and the unions support causes that are unrelated to education altogether,” the court wrote.

But Wilson also concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to meet the legal standard of showing that “the state and the union are joint actors in an unconstitutional scheme.”

The court also noted: “Unions cannot use the force of law to require a teacher to contribute to political and ideological expenditures as a condition of employment.”

The ruling drew immediate praise from the leaders of the state’s two largest teachers unions.

“The Bain lawsuit rests on sensational and entirely incorrect claims,” said California Teachers Assn. President Eric Heins. “Every educator is entirely free to decline membership. Members of CTA also have the option of not having any of their dues money spent for political candidates. It’s as simple as checking a box on their membership form.”

“What the Bain plaintiffs were asking for would have represented a significant and unprecedented violation of teachers’ First Amendment rights to democratically associate in a labor union,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. 

StudentsFirst was not ready to concede.

"It's early in the judicial process, and we're not backing down,” said Jim Blew, president of the Sacramento-based advocacy group. “We believe the union leadership continues to unconstitutionally coerce political contributions from members.”

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

The legal team also is involved in another high-profile lawsuit in which it is fighting with teachers unions. In that case, Vergara vs. California, an L.A. County Superior Court judge threw out traditional teacher job protections, including tenure rights and seniority-based layoffs. That ruling is on appeal.

 Twitter: @howardblume 


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