Politics & Policy

Union: Get Lost, Pal — but Keep Those Dues Checks Coming

CTU members walk a picket line in 2012. (John Gress/Reuters)
The Supreme Court’s petition denial in Friedrichs leaves teachers at the mercy of their union.

Joseph Ocol is a math teacher and chess coach at Englewood Elementary School in Chicago. After whistleblowing and testifying on government corruption in the Philippines, he was forced to flee to the United States. Now, as a devoted teacher, he frequently works after hours, on his own time, to help tutor his students and prepare them for chess competitions. This summer, they have a chance to compete at the White House — and Ocol knows every minute of practice counts.

On April 1, as on most other school days, Ocol went to work, taught his students, and stayed after class to help practice for the chess competition. However, April 1 also happened to be the day the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. Because Ocol decided to spend time with his students rather than picket, the CTU demanded he pay a fine or be expelled from union membership.

On June 6 — also a school day — the union held a meeting to consider Ocol’s fate. He declined to attend in favor of doing his job. On June 21, the CTU handed down its decision: Ocol has been expelled from the union.

Controversies like those between Mr. Ocol and his union highlight the ongoing First Amendment problems that will be allowed to persist now that the Supreme Court has failed to resolve Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. After Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the Court split 4–4 on the case, but the plaintiffs filed a petition to have their case reheard after a new justice could be appointed. The Supreme Court denied that request on the last day of the 2016 term.

The teacher plaintiffs in Friedrichs contend that mandatory union dues violate their First Amendment rights. That claim and the Supreme Court’s refusal to act matters for teachers like Mr. Ocol, because even though he’s been expelled from the union, Ocol will still be required by state law to pay 80 percent of the annual union dues to support the costs of CTU’s collective bargaining, which includes costs associated with organizing strikes — the very thing he wanted no part of in the first place.

From the start, the April strike proved controversial within CTU’s ranks. After all, a Chicago teacher may decide that the city can’t afford higher taxes to support a teacher pay raise right now, or may simply feel that a strike isn’t the best example to set for students.

Ocol says he believed that on the particular day in question, loyalty to his students trumped loyalty to his union.

Indeed, as several teachers confessed anonymously to a local paper, they believe “it sends the wrong message to the kids. We’re there to teach and set a good example. This sets a horrible example. I think we are being used as pawns . . . ” The teachers spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal from their union; the CTU has a strict policy regarding strikebreakers, as Mr. Ocol found out the hard way.

Ocol says he believed that on the particular day in question, loyalty to his students trumped loyalty to his union. As he explained, “I do not wish to be absent because I have always promised the kids that I shall always try to be with them after school even if I do not get paid.”

Teachers may reach different conclusions about the validity of their union’s activities and collective-bargaining objectives, but the government should not put their thumb on the scale of one side or the other. The current arrangement punishes teachers like Mr. Ocol and discourages them from following their conscience by forcing them to fund speech they disagree with. Indeed, teachers like Mr. Ocol highlight the clear First Amendment problems that were raised in Friedrichs.

As a private organization, the union has a right to put conditions on its membership. But teachers who object also have a First Amendment right to not support the activities of an organization to which they do not want to belong.

By not ending the practice, the Supreme Court has let stand a legal regime in which organizations may rapaciously punish dissenters like Mr. Ocol and know they will continue to receive his coerced financial support. The First Amendment rights of thousands of teachers will be even more aggressively violated by these organizations because they know the law even allows them to expel members and still collect their coerced dues year after year. Other cases will raise this question in the future, when the court has its full complement of justices. Until then, teachers and their First Amendment rights will bear the cost.

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