On Wednesday, a federal judge in California dismissed a lawsuit filed by teachers who were challenging the ability of their unions to raise tens of millions of dollars from rank-and-file members and then spend the cash on political activities those members oppose.
Four teachers filed the lawsuit, Bain vs. California Teachers Association, in April. The teachers argue that they — and thousands of similarly situated colleagues — should be able to teach in taxpayer-funded classrooms without giving a dime to a teachers union.
Under California law, teachers are required to pay compulsory "agency fees" for union representation even if they opt completely out of membership (and give up many, many benefits). The unavoidable fees violate the teachers' rights to free speech, the lawsuit claims.
(Also on The Seventy Four: Why the Friedrichs Case Will Give Teachers More Power — and Better Pay)
Teachers union leaders siphon off up to 40 percent of each teacher's dues to support political candidates and political causes locally, statewide and nationally. An individual’s teacher's union dues can be as much as $1,500 each year.
StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group dedicated to school reform, supported the suit brought by the four teachers. Attorneys from the 1,200-attorney firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher argued the case on behalf of the teachers.
In his opinion, Judge Stephen V. Wilson conceded that "unions engage in significant political and ideological expenditures against the will of many of their members," according to the Los Angeles Times. More specifically, Wilson, a Reagan appointee, observed that the California Teachers Association lavished over $211 million on political candidates and political activity from 2000 to 2009.
"Some teachers do not support education-related measures supported by the unions, and the unions support causes that are unrelated to education altogether," Judge Wilson wrote.
Nevertheless, the federal judge concluded the four teacher-plaintiffs failed to show that the state of California and the California Teachers Association "are joint actors in an unconstitutional scheme."
Even though teachers in California must pay agency fees to teachers unions, Wilson claimed the unions "cannot use the force of law to require a teacher to contribute to political and ideological expenditures as a condition of employment."
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers reacted gleefully to Wednesday's ruling. "Through their union, educators join together to make their voices heard on issues that affect our children: fighting for smaller class sizes; advocating for enough nurses and librarians; calling for full and fair funding of our schools; and making sure every child has the resources they need to succeed," said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in a statement, all but ignoring the specifics of the decision.
National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García focused her prepared remarks on the court’s language: "The court, like every other court that has considered such claims, found the plaintiffs’ case without merit. No teacher is required to join a union and no teacher is required to pay any fees that go to politics or political candidates.”
The leader of America's oldest and largest teachers union then declared that the four teachers who brought the claims in Bain vs. California Teachers Association are "making it even harder for working people…to come together."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for StudentsFirst said the group has no plans to give up its lawsuit.
"It's early in the judicial process, and we're not backing down,” StudentsFirst president Jim Blew told the Los Angeles Times. "We believe the union leadership continues to unconstitutionally coerce political contributions from members."