California’s teachers unions have been described as the most powerful force affecting state government. Recently, however, threats to the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have arisen on a number of fronts, yet over the last couple of weeks those threats seemed to be minimized by political pressure, apparent sympathetic judges, and even an act of God.
First came the death of United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Before Scalia’s demise, he sat at the hearing of the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which challenged the union’s right to collect agency fees from all teachers to represent them in collective bargaining. Friedrichs and her teacher colleagues argued that all activities of CTA are political and therefore offering dues to the organization was backing a political agenda with which some teachers did not agree.
Most observers who watched the oral arguments believed that the Supreme Court would rule 5 to 4 in favor of Friedrichs, with Scalia a member of the majority. In other states in which public union members were given the freedom to withhold dues to their union there was a considerable drop-off in fees paid thus weakening the political influence of the unions. Many expected a similar result in California if the court supported the Friedrichs side.
However, with Scalia’s passing it is anticipated that the remaining justices will split on the Friedrichs case resulting in a 4 to 4 tie. If that occurs, the Appellate Court ruling that favored the teachers union will stand.
In another case, a challenge to teacher tenure rules was argued before a Los Angles state appellate court. In the Superior Court, Vergara v. California was decided in favor of nine public school students who argued that the current tenure laws and seniority rules harm school children particularly in poor communities. Lawyers for the students argued that bad teachers are difficult to fire and are often shifted to teaching positions in those poor communities. The teachers unions vociferously argued that eliminating the teacher tenure laws will weaken the profession.
Reports from the hearing last week before the appellate court indicated that two of the three judges expressed skepticism with the decision of Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu. If the questioning were a reflection of the court’s thinking, the Vergara decision likely would be overturned.
It wasn’t just the courtroom where good fortune seemed to follow the teachers unions.
Last week, proponents for the anti-poverty property tax increase measure decided to pull the measure from petition circulation despite having over a million dollars to help qualify the initiative and a stack of petition signatures in hand. Had this property tax measure remained on the ballot, it could weigh down the campaign to pass the Proposition 30 income tax extension backed by the teachers unions.
The unions wanted the property tax gone for a couple of reasons.
One too many taxes on the ballot might convince voters that all taxes deserve a no vote. Property taxes are a local tax with a share of the property tax going to schools. Creating a state controlled property tax designated for purposes that exclude the traditional school funding was anathema to the unions. The teachers unions and their allies inside and outside the government put immense pressure on the initiative proponents to pull their measure.
Whether due to political pressure, sympathetic judges, or an act of God, good fortune shined on the teachers unions as they moved to preserve their powerful position in state politics.
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Joel Fox is Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee. This article originally appeared in Fox & Hounds and appears here with permission.