A federal judge in Los Angeles has dismissed a lawsuit that would have made the ability of teachers unions to raise money for involvement in political activity more difficult. Bain vs. California Teachers Association was filed by four teachers in April who were represented by a legal team from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
The teachers were also endorsed by StudentsFirst, a political lobbying group with the aim of elevating teaching, empowering parents, and influencing policies for school spending and resource allocation. Both the law firm and the lobbying group have been involved in other issues concerning teachers’ rights and union influence.
Howard Blume of The Los Angeles Times reports that this case was brought to court because these teachers wanted the right to belong to their local union, but they did not want their dues to be used for political causes against their will.
California teachers are required to pay “agency fees” even if they do not choose to be members of the union. Agency fees are a designated amount used to cover the cost of union activities performed on their behalf. Teachers who do not join the union also miss out on members-only benefits, which include disability insurance and paid family leave.
Additionally, nonmembers cannot vote in union elections. The plaintiffs claimed that the unions were disregarding their free speech rights.
In the opinion of Judge Stephen V. Wilson:
“[The] unions engage in significant political and ideological expenditures against the will of many of their members,” noting that the California Teachers Association spent more than $211 million for political purposes from 2000 through 2009. “Some teachers do not support education-related measures supported by the unions, and the unions support causes that are unrelated to education altogether,” the court wrote.
But the judge decided that the plaintiffs did not meet the legal standards that showed “the state and the union are joint actors in an unconstitutional scheme.” The court also concluded: “Unions cannot use the force of law to require a teacher to contribute to political and ideological expenditures as a condition of employment.”
The state’s two largest teachers unions praised the court’s decision. California Teachers Association President Eric Heins said the claims in the lawsuit were false and that all educators are free not to join a union. Members can also choose not to have their dues spent for political candidates by checking a box on their membership form.
StudentsFirst remained hopeful.
“It’s early in the judicial process, and we’re not backing down,” said Jim Blew, president of the Sacramento-based advocacy group. “We believe the union leadership continues to unconstitutionally coerce political contributions from members.”
According to The Associated Press, Judge Wilson’s dismissal was based on the fact that the lawsuit failed to show that state law influenced the unions’ membership policies, which was crucial for a First Amendment claim.
“It appears that plaintiffs’ ultimate grievance is the lack of state action in prohibiting bundled employment-related benefit and political expenditures as a part of membership dues,” the judge wrote.
The teachers’ lawyers did not reply to an email asking them to comment on whether they will appeal or accept the judge’s invitation to amend their complaint.
This suit was not unlike a high-profile case that is pending before the US Supreme Court which asks the justices to overrule an historical precedent and stop requiring teachers who do not join the union to pay service fees used for collective bargaining, reports Mark Walsh of Education Week. Judge Wilson added:
“Because plaintiffs fail to establish a connection between the unions’ relationship with a government actor and the specific decision to bundle membership requirements, they cannot establish state action on this theory.”