A group of California teachers is preparing for a Supreme Court battle to overturn forced union dues in a groundbreaking lawsuits filed in June.
For nearly three decades, the Supreme Court has allowed closed-shop unionism, in which public employees must pay dues to labor groups handling collective bargaining negotiations.
The Supreme Court established Beck Rights in 1988 allowing workers to opt out of union dues for political activities, while continuing to pay for union negotiating expenses. The teachers are hoping to take that battle one step further by putting an end to all coercive union dues.
Ten California schoolteachers are challenging California’s policy of forcing all public employees to pay union dues for collective bargaining. The Center for Individual Rights (CIR) is aiding their suit. The CIR views the issue through the lens of the Constitution, rather than as a contest of labor policy.
"Our efforts are not anti-union; we are trying to solidify the First Amendment rights of public employees to freely assemble," CIR president Terry Pell said.
The plaintiffs filed a preliminary injunction on Tuesday asking the court to waive the teachers’ union dues during the ongoing trial. Pell is certain the motion will fail, which is all the better for the plaintiffs because it will "fast-track" the litigation to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually the Supreme Court.
"This is a piece of strategic litigation—we’re trying to get the issue of compulsory union dues to the Supreme Court as quickly as possible," he said. "We know that lower courts can’t overrule Supreme Court precedent, but this will expedite us through the system."
The Roberts court opened the door to ending coercive unionism last year when it ruled 5-4 that Service Employees International Union improperly charged non-union members for political activities. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, said the forced dues on non-union members were "indefensible"
"Public-sector unions have the right under the First Amendment to express their views on political and social issues without government interference … But employees who choose not to join a union have the same rights," Alito ruled. "The First Amendment creates a forum in which all may seek, without hindrance or aid from the State, to move public opinion and achieve their political goals."
The California plaintiffs take this reasoning a step further. They argue that negotiations between teachers unions and state officials are a political act in and of themselves. Paying money to aid in union negotiations, Pell says, violates the rights of teachers who object to union goals of maximizing expensive benefits, such as California’s underfunded pension plan.
"All public-sector union bargaining—on issues like pensions and pay and leave and seniority rules—are claims on the public Treasury, an inherently political act," Pell said. "Some union teachers may think this is a good thing, but our clients say that unions shouldn’t be collecting more and more of the public pie while the parents of their students are struggling."
The Obama administration’s labor policies have only exacerbated the tension between First Amendment rights and financing the political activities of unions.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in December 2012 that non-union employees should be forced to pay for lobbying expenses as an "apolitical" activity, if the costs lead to improvements for all employees.
"The NLRB crossed over the line," Pell said. "Union collective bargaining or union ads and lobbying that promote increased education spending are overtly political."
The teachers are not alone in their fight. The National Right to Work Foundation, which won the Knox case, is waging a similar battle in Texas where six airline employees filed a class action suit challenging the concept of exclusive bargaining as an encroachment on the freedom of assembly and speech.
"Union bosses have abused their extraordinary government-granted power to automatically compel workers to fund their political activities unless workers object—a power granted to no other private organization in our country—for far too long," Mark Mix, president of National Right to Work, said in a statement. "The First Amendment right of workers who refrain from union membership to automatically refrain from paying union dues at all and especially for politics is long overdue."