Topics: Labor Unions

California teachers union fears right-to-work law inevitable

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Supreme Court,California,Right to work,Teachers,Teachers Unions,Antonin Scalia,Harris v. Quinn

For the California Teachers Association, the question is "Not If, But When" the Golden State adopts a right-to-work statute.

That's the title of a PowerPoint presentation the union created for its members last month. The document suggests the change might be inevitable based on various lawsuits that could reach the Supreme Court.

The presentation says the cases have a good enough chance to win that CTA should develop a detailed strategy to adapt to the new labor environment. That means the union will have to find ways to boost membership after it loses the power it has under its contract with the state to force teachers to be CTA members or pay "fair share" or "agency" fees to the union.

"Plans are underway in each region for convening workgroups of leaders, members and staff to address long-term approaches to the loss of Fair Share," the presentation said. Local unions will be engaged in an "ongoing education process" with members to answer the question: "What is it like to work in an environment where members must be signed up each year?"

The 325,000-member union has 29,000 members who pay agency fees right now — about one of every 11 members. That's under a system that actively discourages teachers from becoming fee payers in the first place. That suggests the union could lose a lot of members if California becomes a right-to-work state.

The presentation concedes as much, stating that CTA could see less revenue, fewer resources, reduced staffing, pressure on its pension and benefit systems as well as a "potential financial crisis in locals not positioned to survive loss of revenue."

This also raises the stakes regarding the recent Vergara v. California court decision throwing out the state's teacher tenure laws. The legislature will have to rewrite the law, and CTA's own analysis suggests it may have significantly less money to sway state lawmakers when they get around to doing that.

The presentation calls for, among other things, hiring people who have experience organizing in right-to-work states and spreading positive messages about the work that CTA members do "at every level," including the classroom. In other words, the union will encourage teachers to make promoting the union part of their regular job.

In most states, including California, unions can negotiate contracts with employers that require all workers to support the union as a condition of employment. Those who decline to become members are charged "fair share" fees to cover the union's collective bargaining costs. Unions refer to these contract provisions as "security clauses."

This system is intended to prevent workers from becoming economic "free riders" since union contracts usually require them to bargain on behalf of all employees. However, nonmembers are only supposed to be charged for bargaining costs, not other union activity, including political spending. In practice, nonmembers have little means to assure this.

A total of 24 states, mostly Southern ones, have enacted right-to-work laws prohibiting security clauses in union contracts. There have been numerous efforts to expand these rules to California as well as institute them nationally. While CTA has successfully resisted several state ballot initiatives in the past decade, it has less hope that the upcoming legal fights will go its way.

The presentation was obtained by education blogger Mike Antonucci, who posted it Aug. 6. A CTA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. However, the tone of the presentation reflects earlier comments by union leadership.

"I really do believe it is a question of not if, but when. Even if the [Supreme] Court rejects Quinn, there are other lawsuits waiting in the wings," CTA Executive Director Joe Nunez said in a June speech regarding fair share fees.

Nunez was referring to the Harris v. Quinn case, which involved Illinois home health care providers who objected to the state's efforts to get them to join a union. The court ruled in late June that the providers were not state employees in the first place. Therefore, Illinois could not enter into contracts on their behalf.

Many labor law experts thought the court might go further and eliminate fair share fees for public-sector unions entirely by scrapping the precedent that allows for them, a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. Several other cases might limit fair share fees, though.

The CTA document cites the case of Friedrichs v. CTA, which is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That case directly argues that fair share fees violate the First Amendment, since there is little way to assure that the money does not go to political causes or candidates nonmembers do not support.

The narrowness of the Harris v. Quinn ruling suggests that the Supreme Court may not be willing to go any further on the issue. During oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia surprised many by leaning toward the union side. He appeared to take the position that right-to-work laws unfairly limit an employer's ability to write contracts with unions.

Terence Pell, an attorney with the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing the plaintiff in Friedrichs, argues that his case is "better set up to overrule Abood. We are not challenging the right to collective bargaining." Rather, his case is about protecting the rights of minorities, in this case nonunion teachers.

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