Ten California teachers — several of them from Orange County — are suing in federal court to stop mandatory union dues. The lawsuit seeks to expand last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision involving union activity in a California special election.
California law allows public employees to decide whether to have union representation for collective bargaining, which requires members to pay dues. The dues are used to finance union activities, which sometimes includes political lobbying.
The lawsuit, filed by ten California teachers against their state and local unions and national advocacy groups, seeks to change that. Michael Carvin, lead attorney for the teachers, said: "We’re not attacking unions. We are attacking the union’s ability to coerce people ... to give money."
Union members are allowed to ask unions for a refund on the portion of dues spent on political activities. The teachers essentially want to opt-in to such dues, not have to opt-out after the fact.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on another California case involving employees and union dues. The high court said the Service Employees International Union was wrong not to provide notice about its proposed political spending ahead of a special election called by then-Governor Schwarzenegger.
Justice Samuel Alito called it an “involuntary loan” to support a political campaign: "The First Amendment does not permit the government to compel people to support causes with which they disagree."
The high court also said it was concerned about the blurry line between collective bargaining and outright electioneering. Teachers attorney Carvin says the logic of that decision should apply to all union dues.
"We are challenging the routine collection of fees, which requires the teacher to go through the process of opting out and saying, 'I don’t want my money going to politics.' We think the unions need to say, 'If you choose, we will put your money to politics.'"
Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, which is a target of the lawsuit, finds the argument "questionable at best." Vogel says the lawsuit reflects a nationwide attack on unions – such as the recently defeated Proposition 32 in California, which would have forbidden union contributions to elections.
"These kinds of things come routinely," Vogel said. "I respect their right to challenge what we do, but I will assert over and over again that we are within the law – in fact, if we err at all, it’s on the side of the member."
The lawsuit is filed in federal court in California. Carvin said he expects it to move quickly through the appeals court and could arrive at the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court next year.