A challenge to the California Teachers Association will give conservative Supreme Court justices a chance to reconsider compulsory public-sector union fees.
Setting the stage for its next potential blockbuster, the court said Tuesday it would hear the challenge from non-union members opposed to paying the mandatory fees. The case, to be heard sometime after the court’s new term starts in October, could shake up a lot of workplaces well beyond California classrooms.
“This case is about the right of individuals to decide for themselves whether to join and pay dues to an organization that purports to speak on their behalf,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights. “We are seeking the end of compulsory union dues across the nation.”
The teachers are represented by high-profile attorney Michael A. Carvin, who argued unsuccessfully against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s tax subsidies, recently upheld by the high court.
The conservatives are helping represent Rebecca Friedrichs, a longtime teacher in the Savanna School District in Anaheim. Like her legal allies, including Harlan Elrich, a teacher in the Sanger Unified School District in the San Joaquin Valley, and Irena Zavala, a teacher in coastal San Luis Obispo County, Friedrichs rejects paying teacher association dues.
Friedrichs says she opposes many of the union’s public policy positions, while some other teachers hold different objections. Though Zavala objects to the mandatory fee on religious grounds, according to the lawsuit, state law requires her to contribute an equivalent amount to an authorized charity.
“But for California’s `agency shop' arrangement, Mrs. Zavala would not pay fees to or otherwise subsidize the teachers’ union, would decide for herself how much to donate in charitable contributions every year, and would not have her charitable contributions constrained by a collective bargaining agreement,” the teachers claimed in a lawsuit.
Under a prior Supreme Court decision, compulsory fees may be assessed even on employees who won’t belong to the union. The fee is meant to support activities related to the union’s collective bargaining work.
In California, Friedrichs stated, the total fee for full-time teachers generally exceeds $1,000. As a part-time teacher, she says her fee is generally between $500 and $600.
“Mandatory agency fees ensure that all employees in a particular bargaining unit pay a fair share of the cost of the representation,” California Attorney General Kamala Harris declared in a legal filing defending the fees.
Conservatives and some business organizations have long chafed at the so-called “agency fee” and the 1977 decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that concluded the fees did not violate the First Amendment.
Texas, Georgia, Kansas and five other states already have weighed in with a legal brief contending the mandatory agency fee for a public-sector union “coerces political speech” and so violates the First Amendment.
Underscoring the high stakes in the new challenge, the leaders of the Service Employees International Union, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees joined in a common statement denouncing the court’s action.
“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities, decisions that have stood for more than 35 years, and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities,” the union leaders stated.
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The court, as is typical, did not offer any written explanation of its decision to hear the case. As a matter of practice, though, at least four justices must agree for a case to be scheduled for a full hearing.
The California Teachers Association case, in turn, enlivens what is already shaping up to be a provocative 2015-2016 term for a court that concluded its 2014-2015 term on Tuesday and which itself was not short on drama.
Justices previously agreed to hear a challenge to college admissions affirmative action arising out of the University of Texas, as well as a “one-man, one-vote” case that could change how certain political districts are drawn.
(Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @michaeldoyle10)