A federal district court in California is considering a case to decide whether teachers have to pay union dues if they are not informed membership is voluntary and they are waiving certain First Amendment rights by joining.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in Janus vs. AFSCME that government employees cannot be forced to join a union and pay dues.
“Forced union dues … are illegal for public employees nationwide, courtesy of the Janus decision,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.
Teachers Sue Union
Initially, five California teachers filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming they were not informed of their rights when the California Teachers Association pushed them to sign “recommitment agreements” in 2018 requiring them to pay dues until 2020.
News reports of the lawsuit being filed on March 11 led two additional teachers to contact the teachers’ attorneys, says Mariah Gondeiro, a litigation counsel with Freedom Foundation, the nonprofit public interest law firm representing the teachers.
“These two teachers wanted to resign from the union,” Gondeiro said. “They were tired of the union’s intimidation tactics,” said Gondeiro.
An amended complaint adding the two teachers’ names will be filed before a May 28 deadline for filing motions in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, Gondeiro says.
Teachers ‘Should Prevail’
The teachers have a good chance of winning, says Sand.
“If the teachers can successfully make the case that the union trapped them into signing an illegal contract, they should prevail,” Sand said.
It is difficult to predict how a federal judge in California will rule, says Stanley T. Greer of the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of federal judges who appear to harbor a bias against individual employee rights,” Greer said. “For that reason, it is not clear what will happen in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California,” Greer said.
The money the union takes from the teachers is a particular financial hardship in California because it is so expensive to live there, says Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
“Forced union dues are especially onerous for teachers, particularly those in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Alger said. “The annual salary for a typical teacher in the Fremont Unified School District, where one of the plaintiffs works, is about $89,000.”
“That might sound like a lot of money, but … the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area is so high that people with household earnings of $117,000 qualify for low-income housing assistance.
“Being forced to pay $1,500 in annual union dues makes life that much harder for teachers—and that much harder to attract talented people to the teaching profession,” Alger said.
Unions Push Exclusive Representation
Unions believe they have a right to force teachers to pay dues because they are required to to represent them, Sand said.
“They say teachers should have to pay for the service, but it's the unions that push for exclusive representation,” Sand said. “There are a couple of lawsuits that, if successful, will free teachers from any union connection whatsoever. And that could enable teachers to bargain for themselves.”
No one should be forced to spend their hard-earned money on any product or service without direct consent, says Alger.
“Just because an organization offers services it believes are beneficial doesn’t mean others are obligated to want them, much less pay for them,” Alger said.
Question of Equality
Unions don’t necessarily bargain for what is in the best interests of all teachers, says Greer.
“Such forced-dues exactions are especially outrageous when the teacher has a well-founded belief that he or she is getting paid less as a consequence of being subject to union monopoly bargaining,” Greer said.
“As then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris admitted when she was defending teacher forced union dues in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in 2015, union officials ‘do have substantial latitude at times to advance bargaining positions that . . . run counter to the economic interests of some employees,’” Greer said.
New Laws Create Complications
Recent pro-union actions by the California legislature could make the case more difficult, says Alger.
“Prior to the Janus ruling, California lawmakers passed a number of bills to help protect unions by limiting employees’ opt-out rights,” Alger said. “These laws could complicate the case. Even if the United States District Court for the Northern District of California rules in teachers’ favor, the defendants will likely appeal. Their appeal would be heard by the Ninth Circuit, which has one of the highest reversal rates in the country.”
First Amendment Rights
Forced union dues violate public-school teachers’ First Amendment rights when they are compelled to support advocacy by a union they haven’t joined or have left, says Greer.
“I expect the federal courts will ultimately determine that Janus means public employees have a First Amendment right to resign from and cease bankrolling a union at any time, and union officials and public employers may not tell them they have to wait months or even years to stop getting union dues deducted out of their paychecks against their will,” Greer said.
“This [would be] most definitely a victory for free speech,” Sand said. “The unions have been trampling individual rights for years. No one should be forced to give money to an organization that spends it in ways that go against their principles.”
“A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs would be a tremendous victory for free speech, with wide-ranging implications for employees within and beyond the teaching profession,” Alger said.