The State Worker

What do lawsuits against California unions mean for teachers, public workers?

Union fee case about ‘freeloading,’ Sacramento mayor says

Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrel Steinberg, a former union attorney, rallied SEIU 1000 members at an event timed to the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court case.

Anti-union organizations have filed more than a dozen lawsuits in California since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last year that banned public employee unions from collecting fees from workers who don’t want to join them.

Most of the lawsuits aim to force unions to let members leave before their union contracts run out. Seven of the cases are aimed at teachers’ unions. Two more challenge unions at public colleges.

So far, the lawsuits haven’t been successful.

Below, find a quick guide to how the lawsuits could affect public employees in the historically union-friendly state.

Why are unions still in court over membership policies?

In its Janus vs. AFSCME decision in October, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unions couldn’t force non-union members to pay contract fees. Many of the lawsuits filed since the ruling have focused on details of how and when non-union members may stop paying dues.

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Plaintiffs in several California cases have said they never wanted to join unions in the first place but felt pressured to join, or decided they wanted to leave after learning what political views unions were promoting. But when they attempted to leave the unions, they were told the contracts they had signed prevented them from leaving early. They would have to wait to leave until the contract terms were up, typically on a yearly basis. So they are suing to try to leave before that, arguing the Supreme Court’s decision gives them the right to do so.

What do the anti-union organizations want?

The plaintiffs in the lawsuits are backed by right-leaning groups that have sought to weaken unions’ sway at the local, state and national levels. The groups are pushing for courts to adopt the most aggressive interpretations of the Supreme Court’s decision. Some of the lawsuits seek to stop unions not only from collecting dues from those who want to opt out but to force the unions to pay back dues they collected for up to two years.

The groups say unions violate the First Amendment when they collect dues against employees’ wishes and spend the money on political activity. The groups also tend to oppose increases in government spending, which unions ask for when bargaining for salary and benefit increases.

Why do unions restrict when members can quit paying dues?

Unions insist members honor contracts they signed when they joined the unions. The contracts typically specify a window of time shortly before contracts expire during which a member may leave, often requiring written notifications with specific guidelines. By retaining the members, they can continue collecting dues longer and can fend off the potential for more people deciding to leave the unions and stop paying dues.

What happens if courts rule against the unions?

The impacts of a court ruling in favor of one of the lawsuits would depend on the specifics, but could end up weakening unions’ power or their finances. The issue could potentially work its way up to higher courts, creating another precedent that would diminish union power in California, in other states or around the country. A win for the anti-union organizations also could force unions to reimburse workers for past fees or dues.

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