Union opt-out campaigns log incremental gains, but two court cases could change the rules

Whenever anyone suggests that public sector unions are forcing their members to make political contributions, the unions retort that the contributions are strictly voluntary. Technically speaking, this is true, but the tedious process of opting out of making political contributions is a powerful deterrent.

The California Teachers Association, for example, allow their members to become “agency fee payers,” which means they no longer belong to the CTA, do not have to make political contributions, and merely need to pay their “fair share” of the collecting bargaining expenses from which they still presumably benefit. But even if a CTA member has served written notice and been given agency fee payer status, they still will have 100% of the regular union dues withheld from their paycheck as full members; about $1,200 per year. They then have to request, in writing, between Sept. 1st and Nov. 15th every year, that the CTA issue them a check for the portion of their dues that was used for political spending.

This amounts to a rigged system that ensures that very few CTA members bother to opt-out, and even fewer manage to consistently recover their political contributions. Once a CTA member achieves agency fee payer status, they have to actively request a refund of their political contributions every year. But they are permanently excluded from the ability to participate in CTA leadership elections, and they are permanently excluded from being able to have the liability insurance coverage provided to full CTA members. While good alternative coverage can be found from reputable providers at a competitive price, this is yet another deterrent to choosing to become an agency fee payer. And, not insignificantly, those teachers who opt to become agency fee payers face harassment by those among their colleagues who enthusiastically support the CTA’s politics.

A few months ago the California Public Policy Center, in partnership with the California Teachers Empowerment Network, launched the California Teacher Freedom project. If you are a member of the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, or the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and you want to opt-out of paying political dues, go to www.CaliforniaTeacherFreedom.com and you will get very specific instructions.

But why should the process be this difficult in the first place? How many people are going to go to this much trouble?

This is a rigged system. Even if an “opt-out” information campaign were spectacularly successful, the CTA’s political machine would still be intact. And those who opted out would not be participating, collectively, in some equally potent, countervailing political machine that might oppose CTA politics. The vast majority of CTA members would still be feeding the machine, year after year, a machine that fights virtually all significant bipartisan education reforms. And even those who had opted-out would still be paying a net dues equal to about 70% of full dues, money that is deployed in soft political spending and “educational” campaigns. The CTA collects and spends well over $300 million per year.

Because the process is tedious and invites retaliation, while leaving the CTA’s nearly omnipotent political machine completely intact, helping individual teachers opt-out of paying their political dues is about as “incremental” as incremental can get. But while incremental reformers search for ideas that may attract a viable political coalition, there are cases unfolding in the courts that merit close attention. Two of the most promising are in California.

In Friedrichs vs the CTA, as reported earlier this year in an excellent analysis by Peter Scheer entitled “New 1st amendment case poses existential threat to public employee unions,” a favorable ruling could not only convert all political dues from “opt-out” to “opt-in” (i.e., the union would have to annually elicit voluntary contributions from members), but it may also call into question whether or not any dues could be forcibly withheld. Sheer writes:

“The theory of the lawsuit filed, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is that an opt out procedure is constitutionally defective because it compels employees to make a loan to the union for its political activities, and because even the unions’ supposedly nonpolitical activities–such as opposition to charter schools or support for higher taxes to pay for pension benefits–are fraught with political and ideological choices that are objectionable to some employees.”

The other case, Vergara vs. California, could fundamentally change public education in California. According to the fact sheet posted on the website of an organization supporting the lawsuit, Students Matter, a favorable ruling would fundamentally change policies with respect to teacher tenure, dismissals, seniority, and evaluations, all areas where union work-rules have prevented effective management of public schools.

There are a lot of fine teachers in California’s public schools who are disillusioned with the unions they are forced to financially support. They should review the information and instructions compiled by the California Teacher Freedom project and consider becoming agency fee payers (political objectors) or even religious objectors. But they should also take heart from these court cases. Fundamental changes could be coming.

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Ed Ring is the Executive Director of the California Public Policy Center.

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