For decades, organized labor, particularly the union that represents public school teachers, has been checking off boxes in California.
Pass an initiative guaranteeing school funding? Yes. Kill an initiative to allow tax-funded vouchers for private schools? Easy. Crush ballot measures to bar public employee unions from using dues for political campaigns? Check, check and recheck. The union and its allies eviscerated that notion on three different ballots.
Labor dominates politics in California, helping to elect this governor and other Democratic statewide officeholders and a majority of the legislators. But 2016 could be very different.
There will be electoral challenges. Nationally, Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Republican who made his name by attacking that state’s public employee unions, seems to be a formidable candidate.
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In California, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican, are preparing an initiative that would reduce public employee pensions. Big though each battle could be, neither is the main event.
The real threat will occur in a forum where campaign consultants and donations matter little, the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices have agreed to hear a case that challenges public employee unions’ authority to collect dues from dissident members, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.
No doubt, liberals still feel the afterglow of the Supreme Court’s decisions upholding the Affordable Care Act and affirming the constitutionality of marriage equality. But this is a court controlled by appointees of Republican presidents.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the landmark majority opinion in the marriage equality case but is also the Ronald Reagan-appointee who in 2010 authored Citizens United, which has led to ever larger sums being spent by corporations and wealthy people on federal campaigns.
“Look at the composition of the court and it makes you nervous,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
Seemingly all the conservative legal minds who matter are involved in the attack on the California Teachers Association, as are some politicians with scores to settle, former Gov. Pete Wilson among them. The Cato Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, and National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund filed briefs urging review.
The Center for Individual Rights, a conservative and tax-exempt law firm in Washington, D.C., is leading the charge on behalf of another tax-exempt entity, Christian Educators Association International, and 10 Californians who are or were public school teachers.
They want the justices to overturn a 1977 decision that authorizes union workers to withhold the portion of their dues used for political activities but requires them to help pay for union activities such as contract negotiations.
Unions have a way of angering the rest of us. Labor also balances the power against money spent in campaigns by conservative billionaires.
In any given year, the California Teachers Association is among the biggest donors to campaigns for candidates and ballot measures. It’s also a major lobbying force in the Capitol, having spent $54 million since 2000, second only to the oil industry trade group, Western States Petroleum Association, at $62 million. The California State Council of Service Employees, which represents government workers, ranks third, at $48.7 million.
About 25,000 of the union’s 325,000 members opt out of paying for political activities but must help fund other union operations. An additional 29,000 teachers are not union members but still pay for bargaining and representing teachers’ other matters.
The amount of money that might be at stake isn’t clear. But one of the briefs says a loss by the teachers union could cost public employee unions hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Conservatives contend that all union activities are political. The CTA bargains for “tenure, transfer and reassignment policies, and prohibitive termination procedures,” all of which affect public policy, one brief notes.
Tenure is not a direct part of the case. But briefs bring up the issue by citing Vergara v. California, in which a Superior Court judge last year concluded that tenure laws violate the rights of students to an education by allowing grossly ineffective older teachers to remain in the classrooms.
The case has clear partisan implications, as was made clear in a brief filed by conservative attorneys general from eight states, Texas, Michigan and West Virginia among them. Pointing out that unions skew heavily Democratic, the attorneys general said “requiring a public employee to subsidize those activities is materially indistinguishable from the forced subsidization of a political party.”
Finn Laursen, executive director of the Christian Educators Association, said from Ohio where he lives that the group decided to target the CTA because it is a “strong agenda-packed union.”
What’s that agenda?
Laursen cited CTA stands “on homosexuality and abortion, and right down the list.” The union gave $1 million to defeat Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that rejected same-sex marriage.
John Eastman, a conservative law professor who sought the Republican nomination for California attorney general in 2010, signed onto another brief urging the justices to take the case. Eastman is chair of the National Organization for Marriage, the leading opponent of same-sex marriage.
In this case, Eastman is aligned with Theodore Olson, a solicitor general under President George W. Bush, who endeared himself to gay rights advocates by representing gay couples seeking the right to marry. Olson wrote the brief urging the justices to review the case on behalf of former Gov. Wilson, who tangled with the CTA when he was governor in the 1990s.
Unions cross commuters by insisting on BART workers’ right to strike. They protect generous pensions while the rest of us muddle by with meager 401(k)s. Lately, they’ve been picketing a midtown restaurant because the building’s owner, not the restaurant owner, had the temerity to hire nonunion builders. The California Teachers Association too often acts like a bully in politics, squandering the goodwill built by teachers who educate our kids.
For all its failings, labor helps balance the power of conservative billionaires and corporate interests, to the benefit of all working stiffs. Labor will win its share of races in 2016. But the real fight will be decided by nine aging lawyers, and that will affect us all.