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 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.

Stop forcing teachers to join unions

My students and I begin each morning reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We proudly salute the banner of our great nation because we believe in “liberty and justice for all.” A disturbing truth haunts me during each pledge, however. Laws that favor unions over the needs of many students and teachers are robbing us of our promised “liberty and justice.”

Webster’s online dictionary defines liberty as “the quality or state of being free; positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges; the power of choice.”

In 26 states, teachers are denied civil liberties by being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. To make matters worse, much of the dues are used to rob those teachers of justice.

In California, dues average $1,000 a year. Unions admit that more than 30 percent are used for “non-representational” politics that have nothing to do with serving their members. Furthermore, collective bargaining has become so political that many teachers believe the amount spent on political action is considerably higher than the 30 percent to which unions admit.

Sadly, much of the political activity leads to laws and practices that are harmful and objectionable to many teachers, their students, and the taxpayers who not only have to pay unions through tax-funded teachers’ salaries, but are hit again when union politics lead to increased taxes and undesirable laws.

Many Californians are shocked by the passage of AB 1266, which, beginning Jan. 1, will allow transgender students in K-12 schools to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their “gender identity.” Teachers don’t want to harm or single out transgender children; however, teachers are protectors of all children in their care.

In order to give special protection to a very small minority of students, the great majority of children will be subjected to embarrassment and shame. As teachers learn of this law, many oppose it; however, the California Teachers Association (CTA) supported it fully, using the dues of its members.

Unions say that teachers who disagree with their political agenda can “opt out,” and become “agency fee payers.” Tragically, what they neglect to mention is that teachers who exercise their rights to free speech (by opting out of the “non-representational” political portion of the dues) are still required to pay approximately $700 a year. In return for these massive dues, fee payers are bullied, treated as outsiders, labeled “non-members,” and lose all “rights of membership” including liability insurance, voting privileges, and the right to serve within union leadership.

Furthermore, teachers are supposed to be grateful for unsolicited collective bargaining assistance that often creates negative work environments and leads to laws that protect incompetent teachers, increase taxes, and harm students.

In May 2013, nine children filed a lawsuit against the state seeking to challenge union-initiated laws that make it difficult for all students to access high-quality teachers. CTA and California Federation of Teachers (CFT) filed a motion to intervene, and were allowed to join as defendants against the children. Many teachers are cheering for the kids, but sadly, our forced dues are being used to fight against the very children we desire to protect.

As teachers, we have attempted to make our voices heard within our union leadership for years, but unfortunately, our personal liberties aren’t valuable to the union we’re forced to hire as our “representative.” As a result, nine other teachers and I are suing CTA and its affiliate National Education Association (NEA) to obtain freedom from forced unionism. Ironically, the union is using our dues to fund the court battle against us.

There are real-life consequences stemming from legal authority given to unions to collect forced dues. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” My friends and I lost our rights to “liberty and justice for all” the day we became teachers. This week we celebrate the “California Teacher Freedom Project;” it’s my hope that freedom-loving Americans will stand up for the individual liberties of all employees forced into unions.

Rebecca Friedrichs is an Orange County educator and one of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. This originally appeared as a guest editorial in the Riverside Press-Enterprise and appears here with permission from the author.