Dan Walters

High court case hits union dues

California figured prominently, albeit indirectly, in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent high-profile decisions on Obamacare, same-sex marriages and congressional redistricting.

Justice Antonin Scalia even scornfully singled out California in his dissent on the marriage case.

Scalia and his colleagues are not, however, done with California.

As the court recessed this week, it accepted a landmark challenge to the California Teachers Association’s state-sanctioned collection of mandatory dues from teachers, a case whose outcome could seriously affect the state’s balance of political power.

Orange County teacher Rebecca Friedrichs is the nominal lead plaintiff in the case pursued by the Center for Individual Rights, an anti-union organization. It challenges the “fair share” fees that nonmembers must pay under a law passed by the Legislature in 2000 and signed by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

The Supreme Court’s acceptance of the case for its next term, which begins in October, is not surprising.

The court’s conservative wing had implied in past cases that it was open to erasing compulsory union dues and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal quickly kicked Friedrichs upstairs.

The CTA itself even staged a seminar for its leadership not long ago titled, “Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share.”

The huge union, with about 300,000 members, is arguably the single most powerful player in California politics, routinely spending tens of millions of dollars each year to lobby the Legislature, to elect friendly politicians, and on ballot measures, pro and con.

The CTA is facing another high-dollar round of campaigns next year, including, potentially, ballot measures to extend some temporary tax increases and alter the state’s property tax limit.

About 30,000 teachers pay CTA’s “agency fees” without being members, but it’s believed that should the court end compulsory payment, as many as a third of its members would drop out, which could mean a $100 million loss of annual income.

The union says it’s stepping up efforts to persuade teachers to voluntarily remain as members should it lose the case.

Previously, the court had declared that teachers could refuse to pay that part of dues designated for political purposes – which is roughly a third of the CTA’s approximately $1,000 in individual annual dues.

However, the Friedrichs plaintiffs argue that it’s functionally impossible to separate out that portion, thus forcing teachers to pay for political activities they don’t support.

More recently, the court ruled that Illinois health care workers could not be compelled to pay union dues and hinted in that decision that it was ready to issue a broader decision in a case such as Friedrichs.

Acceptance implies that at least four of the nine justices are ready to act, and, as with so many other cases, Californian Anthony Kennedy could hold the decisive vote.

Dan Walters: 916-321-1195, dwalters@sacbee.com, @WaltersBee