Teachers Look to Supreme Court in Union Challenge

Monday, 19 May 2014 05:30 PM

By Andrea Billups

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Rebecca Friedrichs says she is not anti-union but rather is focused on protecting her own freedoms as she awaits a review from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in her lawsuit against the California Teachers Association.

The veteran Orange County educator is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit representing 10 teachers who argue that being forced to pay teacher union dues violates their right to free speech and freedom of association, because those funds are often used to lobby for causes they oppose and to support political agendas in direct conflict with their own beliefs.

"Most teachers aren't aware that our unions are so heavily involved in politics. They just don't know," Friedrichs told Newsmax. "They don't have time to keep up with what the union is doing with our money."

Once teachers learn that the dues they are required to pay as a condition of employment are used for lobbying and activism, they often become "very disheartened and demoralized because they feel powerless to act. If you speak out against the unions, even at the school level, you are bullied. And most teachers just want peace, to be left alone to do their jobs," she said.

Her high-profile case has broad implications for public-sector unions, not only those representing teachers. If Friedrichs prevails, labor unions in 26 states will be affected, forcing unions to work to gain members and to collect dues rather than compelling members by law to pay in a longstanding tradition known as an "agency shop."

A decision from the Ninth Circuit on her appeal is on hold. However, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in June on a similar labor case that could offer Friedrichs almost certain victory.

Labor opponents and supporters are watching developments in Harris v. Quinn. In that case, a group of non-union home-care workers from Illinois have argued that such agency shops for public-sector unions violate the First Amendment because collective bargaining in itself constitutes political speech. They contend that because it is political, a state cannot order workers to pay for it.

Thus far, 24 states, including most recently Michigan, have become right-to-work states, and a decision in favor of the workers in Harris could change the laws in the other states.

Friedrichs' attorney Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit against the California Teachers Association isn't anti-union but "pro-teacher."

"These are hugely wealthy organizations. CTA brings in over $300 million a year in compulsory dues. And they are not accountable of those dues to their members," Pell told Newsmax.

"The teachers have no say-so in this. CTA is the most powerful political lobbying organ in the state. That is fine if teachers agree with it and want to support it, but it's not fine if the whole reason is compulsory payment of dues."

Pell said teachers should decide whether union membership is right for them, noting that California teachers pay about $1,000 a year on average to the CTA. While they may opt out of the political activities portion of the dues — about $350 — some say the process is made difficult and drawn out, largely to discourage teachers from seeing their opt-outs through.

"Voluntary dues would introduce that sort of accountability," Pell said. "If the union had to compete the same way as the American Bar Association and American Medical Association compete for members, I think it would bring them into greater alignment with the people it represents."

Pell said the case "is perceived as a right-wing issue," an effort "to destroy the unions. I think it's just the opposite."

"It's not directed against unions and doesn't challenge their rights to serve as collective bargaining agents," Pell said. "All it says is that teaches have the right to decide whether they support a union. Some will and some won't, but it will make it possible for teachers who disagree to spend their money elsewhere."

Historically, unions have been allowed to collect dues in collective bargaining under the most recent case law, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

In that 1977 case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a union shop to exist in a public workplace. The suit was filed by several Detroit public school teachers who, much like Friedrichs, did not think they should be required to pay fees that would support collective bargaining and ideological issues supported by a union.

The court upheld the union's right to collect dues for collective bargaining, but also upheld restrictions on fees used for non-collective-bargaining activities.

Pell noted that the teachers in his case oppose some positions supported by the CTA.

Among those are tenure rules that have forced many districts to lay off or fire teachers who are doing good work in the classroom in order to keep those veterans who are not performing as well.

In many issues, "they don't believe [the CTA] serves the interests of their students."

Pell added, "It's clear to our clients that the union stands for, almost exclusively, political positions and political candidates to which they are politically opposed."

"Times have changed, and unions have changed, and it's now time to respect and uphold the free-speech rights of individual teachers to decide for themselves whether to support unions. This should no longer be a decision by courts or state legislatures. They should get out and let public employees, individuals, decide for themselves."

Friedrichs said teachers' unions "have become a powerful entrenched organization more focused on self-preservation than on educating children and protecting teachers.

"We shouldn't have to pay any dues," added Friedrichs, who has been teaching for 26 years. "They are speaking for me, and they'll say, 'Teachers stand for this or that' when most of the time, I am on the opposite side of the debate."

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