The largest teachers union in California is preparing for life without forced union membership, as a lawsuit challenging coercive dues makes its way through the legal system.
The California Teachers Association circulated a presentation titled, "Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share," to union leaders and members in July. The report, which was obtained by a watchdog blogger at the Education Intelligence Agency, predicts that the end is near for automatic union membership in public schools.
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The slideshow warns of dire consequences if it loses the ability to collect dues payments from every public school teacher, which could lead to "membership loss … reduced staffing, pressure on CTA pension and benefits system [and] potential financial crisis in locals not positioned to survive loss of revenue."
The union has amassed 325,000 teachers through the closed shop system established in the aftermath of the 1977 Supreme Court decision Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Teachers in many school districts are required to join the CTA as a condition of employment. About 10 percent of CTA’s active members pay agency fees—the union calls them "fair share fees"—that apply only to collective bargaining costs, rather than the union’s political activity.
Ten teachers led by longtime elementary school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs are challenging the arrangement as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of association. Friedrichs and her attorneys at the Center for Individual Rights argue that because the union negotiates for taxpayer dollars, it is an inherently political organization, so there is little difference between agency fees and full dues.
Friedrichs told the Washington Free Beacon that her lawsuit will give teachers a choice.
"There is an undercurrent of fear and most people are too afraid to opt out. Most teachers want to go to class and do their job. They’re totally apolitical," Friedrichs said.
The CTA fears that Friedrichs may have a case, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Harris v. Quinn. That case declared unconstitutional an Illinois "fair share" arrangement that forced home healthcare workers to pay union dues. The decision, according to the CTA document, could prove a "Death knell for fair share."
"The court did not rule public sector Fair Share fees unconstitutional," it says. "But, the conservative majority did express hostility to, and skepticism about the constitutionality of, public sector Fair Share fees, and all but invited further legal challenges [sic throughout]."
The CTA, which did not return request for comment, is working to establish new methods of recruitment, data mining, and cost sharing among the state and local union in order to cope with a potential courtroom loss.
In January, it created a taskforce to "learn what might incent [prospective members] to want to join the Association voluntarily." The union hopes to use social media and "a user-friendly app" as part of a data strategy to "effectively market membership" to young teachers. It also consulted union educators from right-to-work states to discover what it is like "to work in an environment where members must be signed up each year."
The union’s fears are not unfounded. States that have implemented public sector labor reforms have witnessed plummeting union membership rates. When Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker created a voluntary dues system in the public sector, the state’s two largest teachers saw membership rates decline and are now considering a merger.
The CTA is taking steps to ensure that does not happen in California. The union’s 2014 strategic plan—another private document obtained by the EIA blog—outlines various ways to drive up membership. Organizers plan on targeting union free workplaces in the state, such as universities and charter schools, to boost their dues collections and clout.
"All education professionals deserve a voice in determining their working conditions and shaping educational policy," the plan says. "New member organizing—including charter school workers, education support professionals, college faculty, substitutes, and other unrepresented educators—is essential if CTA is to fulfill its goal of providing a quality education for all."
The union also plans to ramp up its political activity in order to push for legislation that eases unionization and win benefits for its members. One of the union’s primary goals in 2014 is to use an "advocacy agenda to build power with students, parents, the community and elected officials."
The union will seek to "elect politicians that reflect our values and hold them accountable to the advocacy agenda. Promote and pass laws and policies that reflect our advocacy agenda," according to the plan.
While the union may be pessimistic about its chances in court, it is equally confident in its ability to survive a world without forced dues.
"Over the years, CTA has responded to many attacks and crises that have threatened to dismantle our organization," the last slide reads. "By and far, we have prevailed because of the organizational strength of our membership. … Planning, organizing and preparedness will ensure our continued organizational strength and survival and help us adapt to an ever-changing environment."
Friedrichs said that the union might have an easier time recruiting teachers if it served the interests of the students, rather than its own coffers.
"The union started out as something good but morphed into what they used to fight against," she said. "They fight for job permanency, not education."
The Friedrichs lawsuit is currently being argued at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but could reach the Supreme Court by 2015.