Supreme Court Ruling Could Give Strength to Teacher Suit

Wording in the decision opens the door for closer scrutiny in an upcoming case against teachers unions.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. listens during The National Italian American Foundation's 35th Anniversary Awards Gala at the Washington Hilton on Oct. 23, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's opinion in Harris v. Quinn previewed arguments likely to take place in a case involving California teachers and union fees.

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While a narrow Supreme Court ruling directly impacted just a relative handful of people, it elicited an outcry of a perceived war against workers and cast doubt on a long-standing precedent that could have troubling implications for teachers unions down the road.

In Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled 5-4 that Illinois could not force eight part-time home health care workers to contribute to union bargaining fees, and that doing so would be a violation of their First Amendment rights. Part of the issue hinged on how broadly a 1977 case on forced union dues extends. That case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, allows unions to require nonmembers to pay fees for collective bargaining, as long as the dues are not used for ideological or political purposes.

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In the end, the justices refused to extend the precedent to the situation in Illinois, claiming the health care workers are "quite different from full-fledged public employees." But in the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the analysis that led to a decision in Abood is "questionable on several grounds." Collective bargaining issues, he wrote, are inherently political in the public sector.

"In the private sector, the line is easier to see. Collective bargaining concerns the union’s dealings with the employer; political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government," Alito wrote. "But in the public sector, both collective bargaining and political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government."

That sort of questioning previews the debates likely to take place in a wider-ranging case (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association), in which a group of teachers is challenging several California teachers unions on the grounds that state laws requiring public employees to pay union dues – regardless of whether they support the union – are unconstitutional. The case, first filed in April 2013 and now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, seeks to overturn the 1977 Abood ruling.

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing the 10 California teachers, tells U.S. News his organization plans to petition the circuit court "in a few days" for expedited consideration so the case can move to the Supreme Court. The group could get a decision from the appellate court "certainly by the end of the year" and a possible hearing from the Supreme Court in the next term, Pell says.

"We’re not attacking collective bargaining. … That’s not at issue," Pell says. "All we’re saying is individual teachers get to decide whether to pay dues to that organization. You can have collective bargaining and you can have a strong union, but you don’t have to have compulsory dues."

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California teachers union dues can cost as much as $1,000 annually, according to the plaintiffs. While nonmember teachers can choose to opt out of the 30 to 40 percent of the dues explicitly devoted to lobbying, they must pay the remaining hundreds devoted to collective bargaining.

"Surely the state's interest in preventing 'free-riding' is diminished when the cost of the ride far exceeds its benefits," the Center for Individual Rights said in a brief submitted in the Supreme Court's Harris case.

Pell says the California case raises a broader question of forced compulsory dues and that the new Supreme Court decision makes it likely the justices would rule against unions.

"We're quite optimistic and hopeful that when our case gets to the court, we'll get a landmark decision," Pell says. "That would be huge."

If the precedent were to be overturned in the Supreme Court, it would be a big change for public unions, says Michael Brickman, national policy director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Public employee unions, he says, rely on mandates that workers will join the union, or at least pay into "the coffers of the union, whether they want to or not."

"You've seen in some states where there’s been a removal or change to this mandate that a significant percentage of public workers don’t want to join the union and would rather represent themselves," Brickman says. "It will be certainly a case that both public employee unions and advocates for freedom for employees will be watching very closely."

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After Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation in 2011 that limited collective bargaining, prohibited employers from collecting union dues and did not require members to pay dues, two major teachers unions in the state lost thousands of their members. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a National Education Association (NEA) affiliate, had lost about one-third of its 98,000 members, and membership in the American Federation of Teachers' (AFT) Wisconsin affiliate decreased by 60 percent from its peak of 16,000 members.

Michigan and Indiana have passed similar laws limiting fee collection by public labor unions.

Teachers unions see compulsory fee collection as an issue of fairness: Whether nonunion members should "reap the wages, benefits and protections negotiated in a collectively bargained contract without needing to pay their fair share," as the California Teachers Association put it in a statement following the Harris ruling.

"Agency fees are a common-sense, straightforward way to ensure fairness and protect equity and individual rights," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement. "Every educator who enjoys the benefits and protections of a negotiated contract should, in fairness, contribute to maintaining the contract."

But it's not the first time the Abood precedent has been challenged. In a 2012 Supreme Court case, the justices ruled that unions' anti-free-riding argument would be "generally insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections."

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Both national teachers unions – the NEA and the AFT – still pledged to continue their efforts following the Monday ruling. In a video message provided to Blue Nation Review, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the Supreme Court decision would "embolden" the union.

The Illinois AFT affiliate said the Monday ruling should make members "fight harder."

"Union members understand that what harms one of us harms us all," the group said in a statement. "It is more important than ever before that we organize in our workplaces to push back against these corporate attacks and fight for our ability to stand up for our schools and our communities. By strengthening our unions, we will ensure our voice is heard."