Politics & Policy

Unions at War in California

Students, teachers, workers fight back in union-happy state

California teachers are rising up against union coercion in a series of legal battles, and they’re being joined by students and other public employees. There are now three court cases in the Golden State challenging compulsory union dues, fast-tracked teacher tenure, and the opt-out procedure for members’ political contributions to unions.

In December, National Review Online reported on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case arguing that union activities are inherently political, and therefore charging union members compulsory dues is a violation of members’ free speech rights. Currently teachers can opt out of “political” dues — the money from which is used toward expressly political purposes. But public school teachers, who are forced to join the union as a prerequisite for employment, cannot opt out of “nonpolitical” dues — the money from which has been used to lobby for teacher tenure and against school vouchers.

In Vergara v. California, nine public school children are challenging a state law granting teacher tenure after 18 months. The state’s permanent employment statute forces administrators to decide whether to grant tenure before teachers even finish their beginner program. The process to fire tenured teachers is so difficult that only 91 public teachers have been dismissed in the past ten years throughout the entire state, according to Students Matter, a non-profit devoted to sponsoring litigation to increase the quality of public education.

Finally, a group of state workers are fighting the opt-out procedure for political dues in Hamidi et al. v. SEIU. Under current laws, union members are allowed to opt out of a portion of their dues designated for “political” purposes. However, the opt-out procedure is extremely opaque and difficult, and members who opt out lose many of their benefits and rights in the union.

The plaintiffs in Hamidi filed a lawsuit against the SEIU on February 1, and the case is currently in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California. Vergara v. California went to trial in a Los Angeles County Superior Court in late January. Friedrichs v. C.T.A. is guaranteed a hearing in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, though the date is pending until the Supreme Court issues a decision on Harris v. Quinn, wherein a woman serving as a care-provider for her son is challenging an Illinois law forcing her to become part of a public-employees’ union.

It’s not surprising that many residents of the state that gave America the 1970s Tax Revolt and the Reagan Revolution do not support the political activities of government employee unions. But the opposition to union strongarming by union members themselves suggests the depth of resentment public sector unions have created, even in the People’s Republic of California.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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