Two years ago, Placer County middle school teacher Michelle Raley launched a long-shot bid to change one of the state’s most powerful labor groups from the inside.
She ran for president of the California Teachers Association, and rhymed her frustrations with the union in a campaign statement.
“My local is a closed shop. We have to pay dues. I want to be a proud member. Not sing the CTA blues,” she wrote in her platform for the 2015 CTA election.
Now she’s one of eight educators trying to force change from the outside with a lawsuit aimed at shaking up California’s public employee unions by negating their ability to collect any kind of dues from workers who don’t join as full members.
It’s one of several lawsuits that well-funded right-to-work firms are trying to land in front of the U.S. Supreme Court once it gains a full roster of justices, presumably with President Donald Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
Their backers are sensing momentum, with recent Supreme Court decisions suggesting that justices might favor a right-to-work argument from California or other states that allow unions to collect so-called fair-share fees from nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining.
In fact, Raley’s case replays an argument that deadlocked the Supreme Court last year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The lawsuit contends that mandatory union dues undermine the free speech rights of employees who object to a range of union platforms, from seniority to charter schools and political candidates.
Gorsuch as a federal judge has not ruled on a labor case involving union dues, but he’s reported to be in a similar ideological mold to the justice he’d replace.
“A 4-4 court would be fine with us,” said David Rosenfeld, a Bay Area labor lawyer, referring to the stalemate on the Supreme Court since Scalia’s death last year. “Nobody knows for sure, but given (Gorsuch’s) very conservative credentials, we expect that he’ll go the wrong way.”
The cases have the potential to take a bite out of the budgets for labor groups that play a major role in California politics. If the unions lose, their leaders say their members would be subsidizing the bargaining services they provide to all teachers.
“They shouldn’t get a free ride; it’s just a matter of fairness,” said California Teachers Association President Eric Heins. “The union has a duty to represent them whether they pay dues or not.”
Some state labor organizations are starting to mobilize members, asking them to take a hard look at Gorsuch.
Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents local government workers in Los Angeles County, is urging its members to call Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris about the nominee. Its national leadership at SEIU also is encouraging a critical look at Gorsuch.
“Our children’s history books will remember what kind of Supreme Court our nation’s senators confirm. Whether that court will be remembered for fulfilling or denying the equal and unalienable rights of women, LGTBQ Americans, people of color and working people is now in the Senate’s hands,” SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee.
Right-to-work advocates won’t predict how Gorsuch would decide on one of their cases, but they’re trying to give the court plenty of opportunities to settle a question that they believe was left unresolved by Scalia’s death.
“It’s completely clear that the issue in our case can only be resolved by the Supreme Court,” said Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, the legal foundation that is backing Raley’s case. “We set this up to be the strongest and most comprehensive challenge to compulsory agency fees. We think this will be a strong vehicle for the court.”
Pell’s team filed the lawsuit challenging the 325,000-member California Teachers Association earlier this month in federal court in Santa Ana. The group also was behind the case that reached the Supreme Court last year, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
The new case argues that compulsory union fees undermine free speech by steering money to political causes that the plaintiffs oppose. Two of the teachers in the lawsuit are from school districts near Sacramento: Raley, and high school history teacher Darren Miller of the San Juan Unified School District.
Miller has paid reduced dues for union representation since 2005. He’s a critic of positions taken by the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.
“I’m against their positions on Common Core, merit pay, charter schools, and vouchers. And unfortunately, I’m required to be a member of NEA and CTA if I want to be a member of my local union,” Miller wrote in a response to questions that The Bee submitted to his attorney.
Raley paid full dues and took leadership positions in her local union until 2015, when she said her doubts about the union’s statewide and national policies led her to break with them. “I was disgusted with their policies,” she wrote in response to questions The Bee submitted to her attorney.
In a separate California case, a group of workers represented by SEIU Local 1000 is challenging the way state government’s largest union registers employees who do not want their dues to support political campaigns. Every year, those employees must opt out of dues for the union’s political spending, a process that they contend is burdensome and biased.
U.S. District Judge William Shubb earlier this month ruled in favor of SEIU 1000, holding that its opt-out registrations are legal. But the plaintiffs are expected to appeal.
Jeffrey Demain, the attorney representing SEIU 1000, wouldn’t predict how the case would unfold if it moves to the Supreme Court. He said a Trump nominee might hold a right-to-work preference, but still allow existing California law to remain in place.
“The unions have been obeying the law. They’ve been upheld time after time in these cases. This is clearly a deliberate and well-funded effort by anti-union forces to try and change the law and make it more difficult for working people to have a voice both in the workplace and outside of the workplace, and we’ll do everything we can to prevent that from happening,” he said.