LOS ANGELES (CN) — Buoyed by the nomination of a conservative justice to the Supreme Court, eight public school teachers have rebooted a case against mandatory payment of union dues and fees, in a battle that could threaten California’s powerful public employee unions.
Orange County public schoolteacher Ryan Yohn and seven others sued California and the California Teachers Association in Federal Court on Monday. They claim that California’s agency shop law violates their right to free speech under the First Amendment, forcing them to pay for policies on public spending and teacher tenure that are inimical to their interests.
Yohn said in a statement that he hoped a ruling in his favor would allow teachers to decide whether they want to support the political agenda of their union or not. He said he opposes the tenure system that favors senior but less effective teachers at the expense of newer, more qualified teachers.
“If successful, this case will finally give hundreds of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers true power to decide for themselves whether to support the union’s positions,” Yohn said.
California requires teachers to pay union dues of about $1,000 per year. Teachers may opt out of the union, but even if they do, they must pay $350 to $400 in fees, according to Yohn.
Nonmembers lose their right to some benefits obtained through union membership, including disability insurance, Yohn says, and the right to participate in collective bargaining.
“It is clear that the state’s agency shop does not serve the interests of all public school teachers. In the course of collective bargaining, unions frequently take politically controversial positions on matters of public concern that contradict the deeply held beliefs of some teachers, who do not believe the policies advocated by unions to be in their best interest or in the best interest of society at large,” the 33-page lawsuit states.
California’s public employee unions have hundreds of thousands of workers. The California Teachers Association alone has 325,000 members and a ruling for the plaintiffs could weaken the union, said union spokesman Mike Myslinski.
Teachers are not forced to join the union, he said, and no one is required to pay fees that are used for political contributions or go to political candidates.
“This case is about making it even harder for working people to come together, speak up for each other and get ahead by collectively bargaining and negotiating to make the rules about benefits and hours and wages more fair,” Myslinski said in a telephone interview.
A conservative group in Washington, D.C., the Center for Individual Rights, filed the complaint on Yohn’s behalf. The group represented Rebecca Friedrichs and other teachers in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a 2013 lawsuit that challenged the mandatory collection of union dues.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the closely watched case in early 2016. But the death of Justice Scalia resulted in an evenly split decision from the court’s eight remaining justices and a de facto victory for the unions.
The unsettled legal claims left the door open for Yohn, who has worked as a middle school teacher in the Westminster school district for more than a decade and left his union five years ago.
Before his death, Scalia wrote in 1991 in support of the court’s 1977 precedent in Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education, which found that collection of mandatory fees from nonmembers and members are necessary so unions can collectively bargain for members and nonmembers.
If President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, he could provide the deciding vote with the court’s four conservative justices, if this case reaches the court.
Center For Individual Rights President Terry Pell said his clients are looking for a definitive ruling after the tie in Friedrichs.
“With judicial nominations now moving forward, it is imperative to have the issue ready for the full Supreme Court to consider. Questions of fundamental rights, like the right to free speech and free association as laid out in this case, deserve a final and binding decision from the court,” Pell said in a statement.
A ruling for the plaintiffs would deal a blow to public employee unions and by extension the Democratic Party, which benefits from organized labor’s political donations.
Represented by Jones Day attorney John Vogt, Yohn seeks a ruling that bars the collection of dues and fees from nonunion members and an injunction.
California has the third-highest average teacher salary in the nation, $69,324, according to TeacherPortal.com, a website owned by QuinStreet, a publicly traded corporation. Only Massachusetts’ ($72,334) and Connecticut’s ($69,397) average teacher salaries are higher.
California’s average starting teacher salary of $41,259 is fifth-highest in the nation.
Average teacher salaries in states more hostile to unions are much lower: $29,851 in South Dakota and $31,874 starting pay in Arizona, for instance, and average salaries of $39,018 in South Dakota and $49,885 in Arizona.
Unions also have secured teachers benefit packages, including pensions, far better than those offered by typical corporations today.