Eight California educators filed a lawsuit last week against the California Teachers Association (CTA) for their right not to have to
pay mandatory union dues. The Center for Individual Rights, which filed the suit in a Los Angeles federal court on the plaintiffs’ behalf, is the same firm responsible for bringing Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to the Supreme Court last year, which covered similar ground. Despite early indications in oral argument that the court would side with the plaintiffs, Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death last February left the court deadlocked 4-4, which reaffirmed the lower court’s decision against Friedrichs without leaving a constitutional precedent.
California public school teachers don’t have to pay dues supporting the CTA’s political activism, but they are forced to contribute hundreds per year per person in “agency fees.” These contributions support the union’s collective bargaining activities. The unions argue that the mandatory dues are justified because union members and non-members alike benefit from the contract negotiations the fees support. The plaintiffs argue that collective bargaining is inherently political since it involves important decisions about how to use limited taxpayer resources. As teachers who oppose many of the collective bargaining decisions support of political speech they oppose, the plaintiffs argue, violates their first amendment rights under the Establishment clause.
During the oral argument in Friedrichs v. California, the late Justice Scalia laid out how contract decisions in collective bargaining can have very real political outcomes:
The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere, almost by definition. Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority or on the basis of [merit?] All of those questions are necessarily political questions.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Ryan Yohn, a middle school social studies teacher with 13 years of experience. He’s grown frustrated with the last-in-first-out hiring and firing policies the union institutionalizes in its contract negotiations. “I have seen firsthand examples throughout the years where an amazing teacher … was bumped out of their classroom or laid off simply because they were new, young and temporary,” Yohn said.
Beyond hiring, firing, and school operations, collective bargaining plays a key role in pension costs: a major budget issue for most school districts, cities, and states these days. Over the past decade, public school pension costs have doubled, topping $1,000 per pupil on average nationwide in 2015, not even counting in health benefits or social security contribution costs. What does that mean in terms of tradeoffs? In 2012-2013, the most recent year of data from the National Center for Education Statistics, we spent about $11,300 per public school pupil. The NCES projects its 2015 data to look similar when released. Percentage-wise, these costs are making real impacts. A major driver of these pension costs are union-negotiated defined-benefit pension plans, which are more fiscally unsustainable than the 401(k)-style defined contribution plans most of the private sector uses. Try telling a parent that it’s not a political issue that nearly one in ten of every public education dollar we spend funds retired adults instead of their kids’ learning. There’s no reason teachers like Yohn and others should be forced to fund these policy decisions if they disagree with them.
An interest group that funds its efforts through the unwilling contributions of employees isn’t an interest group, it’s an extortion racket. Thanks to Yohn and his co-plaintiffs, this can end.