Teachers’ suit could rock unions 

click to enlarge A lawsuit filed against the California Teachers Association questions the role of seniority and tenure in collective bargaining decisions.
  • A lawsuit filed against the California Teachers Association questions the role of seniority and tenure in collective bargaining decisions.

According to California Watch, an affiliate of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the California Teachers Association was the state’s most generous political contributor between 2001 and 2011. The total amount calculated by California Watch doesn’t even include the $75 million that the group un-ironically spent last fall to defeat a ballot measure that would prohibit public employee unions from contributing to political campaigns.

CTA members are allowed to opt out of paying for the union’s political activities, but when a union is as politically active and powerful as the CTA, where is the line between political action and member-focused action? Which is “expanding the CTA membership base,” or “organizing and training for political action and community outreach”?

A lawsuit recently filed in federal court challenges this and other elements of the relationship between teachers and their unions. A victory in the suit would effectively make California a “right-to-work” state for public employees.

The case was filed by a group of California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International. They claim that requiring union members who don’t want their money spent on politics to opt out is backward. They say teachers should have to opt in to contribute to the political activities of the union.

The plaintiffs also want any teacher to be able to stop paying union dues — even for normal bargaining activities — without losing his or her job. (This is basically a right-to-work law.) Currently, all teachers have to pay that portion of the union’s expenses that are non-political.

All of this is based on the argument that forcing teachers to opt out of political spending and pay for collective bargaining that they don’t agree with are violations of the First Amendment. That amendment guarantees people the right to free speech and association, which includes the right to withhold support from political causes one does not agree with.

Seniority is one collective bargaining stance that the plaintiffs object to. In their complaint, it says, “‘seniority’ protections and other employment protections advocates by unions benefit some teachers at the expense of other teachers who would fare better under an alternative system.” Notably, all the plaintiffs have been teachers for anywhere from 10 to 28 years.

So far, the union has brushed off the lawsuit, calling it just “another baseless attack.” And I’ll admit, when I first read about this, I figured, “This sort of scheme has been around for decades. If the First Amendment invalidates it, wouldn’t someone have thought of that already?” Well, yes, they did. In a case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court said the scheme is fine.

But in a ruling last June in a case called Knox v. SEIU, the Supreme Court questioned its prior ruling in Abood and basically invited a new constitutional challenge like the one just filed. The lead lawyer in the case expects it to be at court by next year.

As it turns out, being the largest and most politically active union in the nation makes the CTA both a big player and a big target.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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Melissa Griffin

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