April 29, 2015

Teachers' unions sued for violating First Amendment rights

By Meriem L. Hubbard Senior Attorney

California teachers’ unions spend millions of dollars on political candidates and initiatives.  That is no secret.   Those dollars, which come from union members’ dues, support democratic candidates and liberal causes, whether or not individual teachers approve of the way the money is spent.  This month, four California teachers sued a handful of California and national teachers’ unions in order to preserve their right to union membership, even if they choose not to contribute money to the unions’ political and ideological activities.  The case is Bain v. California Teachers Association.

California teachers are not required to join unions, but there are ample rewards for joining.  The unions provide generous benefits, such as disability Insurance, maternity benefits, free legal representation in employment disputes, liability insurance, death and dismemberment benefits, and financial assistance for losses due to disasters.  Teachers who do not join unions cannot receive any of these benefits.  Nor can they can they vote on some matters that directly implicate collective bargaining interests.  In exchange for giving up union benefits, non-union members do not have to contribute to expenditures deemed to be political or ideological in nature.  Union members must contribute.

Plaintiff teachers argue that union members are compelled to abandon their First Amendment rights.  “By punishing teachers for–and deterring teachers from–exercising their First Amendment rights, this arrangement violates the First Amendment.  The plaintiff teachers seek the same right to opt out of funding the unions’ political and ideological activities that non-members have.”

The teachers’ complaint reveals some shocking facts about how teachers’ unions support or oppose controversial political issues, some of which are not directly related to education.  For example, here is a list of California Teachers Association (CTA) expenditures:

  • more than $26 million to oppose Proposition 38 in 2000 (would have allowed a school-voucher system in California);
  • $8.2 million to oppose Proposition 74 in 2005 (which sought to extend the probationary period for public school teachers);
  • more than $60 million in opposition to three attempts to eliminate automatic payroll deductions from teachers’ paychecks;
  • $20 million in support of Propositions 79 and 80 in 2005 (would have reduced the costs of prescription drugs for low-income families and established government regulation of electric service providers);
  • $8.8 million supporting Proposition 24 in 2010 (would have repealed corporate tax incentives);
  • $1.3 million in support of Proposition 25 in 2010 (allowed legislators to adopt a budget with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote);
  • $1.1 million in support of Proposition 72 in 2004 (would have required private-sector employers to provide healthcare for their employees);
  • From 2003-2012, the CTA spent nearly $102 million on political contributions.  0.08 percent went to Republicans.  Since 1986, the CTA has donated $15.2 million to the California Democratic Party Committee, and $110,000 to the California Republican Party Committee.

The CTA has 325,000 members.  Undoubtedly, each and every one of them does not agree on every political issue the union has decided to support.  Well-established law holds that the First Amendment prevents an individual from being “compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

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