Nan Austin

Union power challenged by fed-up teachers, seen as bold move to weaken labor rights

Arguments were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday over agency fees, what unions call fair-share fees, that teachers must pay in California whether or not they choose to become union members.

As lawyers pressed their cases in Friedrichs v. the California Teachers Association, union members rallied outside the court at 1 First St. Southeast in Washington, D.C. But those who watched the oral arguments said the plaintiffs found sympathetic ears among conservatives on the bench.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 10 California teachers and Christian Educators Association International, takes aim at union dues on free speech grounds. If the plaintiffs win, it would be a knife straight to the heart of union financial stability, ending a 40-year state guarantee of universal payments to teachers unions and putting all so-called agency shop arrangements at risk in 23 states.

“Just as state budget cuts threatened the solvency of districts and we pulled out the stops to preserve our organizations, the unions will see this issue as an equivalent priority,” wrote Ron Bennett, CEO of School Services of California Inc., in an editorial posted online Jan. 6.

The roughly 275,000 teachers in California school districts (most charter schools are not unionized) typically pay around $1,000 a year in union dues, money they would have to choose to spend on membership if the enrollment requirement ends. Nonmembers of CTA locals pay around $650, according to an analysis of case materials provided by Education Week.

The Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit, sought out disaffected teachers to file the lawsuit after sensing the court was sympathetic to the cause, President Terry Pell said in a conference call with media Jan. 7. Business organizations, conservative think tanks and 17 states, led by Michigan, have written amicus briefs for the plaintiff.

Public safety sector unions, the California attorney general, the U.S. Department of Justice and other powerful voices have lined up squarely behind CTA, which also held a conference call for reporters that day.

No one has to join the union or pitch in for its political activities. But California teachers do have to pay a fee to the union for its collective-bargaining expenses, even if they choose to not join.

“It’s a reasonable compromise approved by court,” said Lily Eskelsen García, a sixth-grade teacher. Collective bargaining is a service, an advocacy that keeps class sizes in check, keeps nurses and counselor loads within reason, saves recess, she said. “(Teacher) working conditions are about what students need.”

It also is about what teachers need, which can sometimes just be knowing a collective voice will stand up for them. Tough meetings where she has to advocate for families with problems are where kindergarten teacher Reagan Duncan said having a union makes all the difference.

“Because I have a strong union behind me and beside me, I feel free to walk into those meetings and advocate without fear of being pulled aside after the meeting (by an administrator),” Duncan said. “I’m glad for those rights and fearful of losing them.”

To pay nothing​ to protect those rights​, when union bargainers ​and legal staff ​do the hard work for everyone, is just wrong, argued Eric Heins for CTA. He compared it to four friends going out to lunch at a cafe chosen with a 3-1 vote, but after the meal the ​loser refuses to pay because it was not the cafe he wanted.

But the plaintiffs argue not all teachers get to vote on the cafe, that many see themselves more like vegetarians having to ante up for a group meal at Arby’s. ​

While the lawyers tick off constitutional points, teachers within the lawsuit ​present a case for better customer service, more transparency and not assuming three guys at the top who are counting down to retirement speak for everyone.

Rebecca Friedrichs, a fourth-grade teacher in Anaheim, said she was active in her union but came to see the union leadership as a clique that did what was best for itself, not what mattered to the membership.

The example she gave was that when recession-era cuts threatened layoffs, she and other teachers campaigned hard to convince the union to put the bargaining priority on saving jobs, even if it meant cutting salaries by 2 or 3 percent. Union leaders refused. She asked them to survey the members. No dice.

“Without exception, the union would not listen,” she said.

The legal underpinnings of the suit rest on the argument that even the union’s collective bargaining is politicized now, with the vast span of working condition and pay issues reflecting the union’s ideological stripe. Negotiating for expensive increases, when teachers as taxpayers and parents might have other priorities​,​ shows a political bent ​not ​everyone should have to support, explained Pell, lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“The state collects millions on their behalf,” he said,​ adding​ that a win ​for his side ​would introduce accountability. The union would have to sell itself to its members.

“I actually think this could be a very positive thing for unions,” Friedrichs said.

Clearly unions disagree, and CTA brought up a broader perspective.

“States that allow fair share end up with higher pay and benefits and health care insurance for the average person in the community,” said Eskelsen García. States without that union-strengthening agency fee provision, she said, have lower salaries and fewer benefits.

“That good union job became the standard that people aspired to,” she said. “If you can suppress union compensation, it has the effect of suppressing everyone’s compensation.”

Which, CTA says, is exactly what big business interests backing the lawsuit want to have happen. ​Their contention could not be immediately verified. The Center for Individual Rights posts its nonprofit tax return on its website but​ stops short of including the form that lists its donors.

The court’s decision is not expected until June. In the meantime, the union al​so has on its radar ​​the Vergara v. California lawsuit, challenging seniority-based layoffs and teacher dismissal protections​. The suit, pressed by the nonprofit Students Matter, won a decisive victory at trial in 2014. Its provisions overturning state law are on hold awaiting an appellate ruling. Oral arguments have not been scheduled in the case.

Vergara capsulized public anger at the teacher protections unions defend. Friedrichs takes aim at the resources, in money and members, that keep teachers unions such strong advocates. Together, they paint a picture of labor organizations under pressure from within and without to retool and reconnect. ​