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Prop. 32 Ghost Looms Over Lawsuit Against Teachers Union

Last November unions won a resounding victory when voters defeated Proposition 32, a ballot measure that would have crippled labor’s political influence in California, partly by barring public-employee unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. The initiative, which enjoyed a huge lead in early opinion polls, was heavily funded by wealthy conservatives and far-right groups.

Union leaders were overjoyed by its defeat.

“You can’t buy California,” Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA), told an election-night victory party in Sacramento. “We’re not for sale.”

The celebration hasn’t been long lived. In a little-noticed move in April, a conservative legal organization that has pushed to overturn the 1964 Voting Rights Act filed a lawsuit in federal court in Santa Ana that could accomplish in the courts what Prop. 32 couldn’t at the ballot box. The players behind the suit may not be household names but the millionaires and private foundations covering their legal fees represent a familiar klatch of extreme libertarians who, since the 1980s, have been attempting to move the country in a hard-right direction.

The main plaintiff, the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI), firmly opposes reproductive rights and marriage equality – two of the same movements opposed by Prop. 32?s various backers. CEAI also supports school voucher programs and the teaching of Creationism – also causes championed by some of Prop. 32?s supporters, who saw unions as an obstacle to imposing their political will on California when it came to these and other issues.

The lawsuit, known as Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, challenges the constitutionality of laws that allow teachers’ unions to collect fees from teachers who don’t want to be members. The lawsuit also seeks to outlaw an automatic payroll deduction process, under which teachers who don’t want a portion of their fees to go for political activities must “opt out” of funding those activities. It claims that California’s “agency shop” law violates the First Amendment by compelling public school teachers to pay fees to teachers unions involved in political activities.

Comments made by the lawsuit’s supporters suggest that they are hoping for an ultimate victory before the U.S. Supreme Court that would be applied to all public-sector unions. Could this happen?

“It’s a little unclear from the papers the plaintiffs have filed,” says Jacob Rukeyser, a CTA staff attorney working on the case. “The novel legal theory they are using would directly affect public educators. Read broadly, it seems like a possibility that other unions could be affected.”

Nevertheless, at the very minimum the lawsuit would require teachers wishing to support their unions’ political activities to now “opt in” to fund them — a change whose largest practical effect would be to greatly reduce the unions’ money for political activities and to erode their influence.

“It would be a national Prop. 32,” says J. Felix De La Torre, chief counsel of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, California’s largest state employee union.

Says Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition: “For public employee unions, it’s the biggest thing to come down the pike in 20 years.”

The lawsuit’s supporters agree.

“If this lawsuit is successful, it conceivably could make California into a right to work state,” says Larry Sand, a retired middle school history teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “It goes beyond California – this case could be a huge deal. It would affect workers, union political spending and ultimately children because unions are the number-one impediment to education reform. This definitely could go further than Proposition 32.” [cont’d.]

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Prop. 32 Ghost Looms Over Lawsuit Against Teachers Union

Last November unions won a resounding victory when voters defeated Proposition 32, a ballot measure that would have crippled labor’s political influence in California, partly by barring public-employee unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. The initiative, which enjoyed a huge lead in early opinion polls, was heavily funded by wealthy conservatives and far-right groups.

Union leaders were overjoyed by its defeat.

“You can’t buy California,” Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA), told an election-night victory party in Sacramento. “We’re not for sale.”

The celebration hasn’t been long lived. In a little-noticed move in April, a conservative legal organization that has pushed to overturn the 1964 Voting Rights Act filed a lawsuit in federal court in Santa Ana that could accomplish in the courts what Prop. 32 couldn’t at the ballot box. The players behind the suit may not be household names but the millionaires and private foundations covering their legal fees represent a familiar klatch of extreme libertarians who, since the 1980s, have been attempting to move the country in a hard-right direction.

The main plaintiff, the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI), firmly opposes reproductive rights and marriage equality – two of the same movements opposed by Prop. 32?s various backers. CEAI also supports school voucher programs and the teaching of Creationism – also causes championed by some of Prop. 32?s supporters, who saw unions as an obstacle to imposing their political will on California when it came to these and other issues.

The lawsuit, known as Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, challenges the constitutionality of laws that allow teachers’ unions to collect fees from teachers who don’t want to be members. The lawsuit also seeks to outlaw an automatic payroll deduction process, under which teachers who don’t want a portion of their fees to go for political activities must “opt out” of funding those activities. It claims that California’s “agency shop” law violates the First Amendment by compelling public school teachers to pay fees to teachers unions involved in political activities.

Comments made by the lawsuit’s supporters suggest that they are hoping for an ultimate victory before the U.S. Supreme Court that would be applied to all public-sector unions. Could this happen?

“It’s a little unclear from the papers the plaintiffs have filed,” says Jacob Rukeyser, a CTA staff attorney working on the case. “The novel legal theory they are using would directly affect public educators. Read broadly, it seems like a possibility that other unions could be affected.”

Nevertheless, at the very minimum the lawsuit would require teachers wishing to support their unions’ political activities to now “opt in” to fund them — a change whose largest practical effect would be to greatly reduce the unions’ money for political activities and to erode their influence.

“It would be a national Prop. 32,” says J. Felix De La Torre, chief counsel of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, California’s largest state employee union.

Says Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition: “For public employee unions, it’s the biggest thing to come down the pike in 20 years.”

The lawsuit’s supporters agree.

“If this lawsuit is successful, it conceivably could make California into a right to work state,” says Larry Sand, a retired middle school history teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “It goes beyond California – this case could be a huge deal. It would affect workers, union political spending and ultimately children because unions are the number-one impediment to education reform. This definitely could go further than Proposition 32.”

The lawsuit was filed by the Washington D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights (CIR) on behalf of CEAI and 10 California teachers. Besides the California Teachers Association, the suit names the National Education Association, 10 affiliated union locals and 10 local school officials as defendants.

“There is no Constitutional right to have mandatory public-sector bargaining,” says Patrick J. Wright, a senior legal analyst for the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “We think voluntarism is a better public policy because it enhances peoples’ freedom of choice.”

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