Editorial

Teachers unions: wanting the perks of membership without the politics

A new lawsuit attacks the power of public employee unions to engage in politics

If you're a public school teacher and you pay your union dues, you get to enjoy whatever salary deal the union negotiates for you.

But the union spends part of your dues on political lobbying and campaigning, perhaps for causes and candidates you can't stand. Then what? Forcing you to pay to advance positions you dislike violates the 1st Amendment.

To deal with this problem, you can quit the union and keep your job, thanks to court rulings. You will still pay your fair share to cover the service the union provides in negotiating your contract, but you won't pay the portion that goes to political activity.

And what if you don't want to support the union's political stances, but you want to be able to vote out your contract negotiators and elect new ones? You also want some of the other benefits the union provides only to its members — including lawyers when you get into a dispute with your principal, or insurance policies and discounts. Does it violate the 1st Amendment to force you to choose between paying for unwanted political activity and accepting fewer benefits?

That's the gist of a lawsuit filed last week by four California teachers backed by the education reform group StudentsFirst. Like the suit in Vergara vs. California, in which a court found that tenure rules unconstitutionally subjected some students to bad teachers, the latest suit appears to be aimed at loosening the stranglehold that reformers say teachers unions have over public schools.

Unlike Vergara, though, the current case doesn't focus on students or education but is at its core an attack on the power of any public employee union to engage in politics. Plaintiffs argue that more and more benefits formerly won through collective bargaining are now union membership perks. That compels employees to join and pay their full dues — including the part that goes toward politicking — leaving employees who don't want to join the union with second-class benefits.

The implication is that the Constitution not only protects workers' speech but also guarantees them the right to every benefit the union offers to its members, even if those benefits were not negotiated with the company. It's a creative argument but not, in the end, convincing. The 1st Amendment prevents employees from having to join a union, and even guarantees them the fruits of collective bargaining, but it's hard to see how it allows them to join but not follow the rules.

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