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Bringing the Classroom to Court: The Battle for Teacher Protection

The nonprofit Partnership for Education Justice, which is supported by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, filed one July 28 in the New York State Supreme Court. Another group, New York City Parents Union, filed a similar case in early July on Staten Island.

Dollars At Stake

In the second case — Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association — teachers in California are claiming that forcing them to pay dues to the union even when they disagree with its positions violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and association.

Under existing case law, public unions must distinguish between “chargeable” expenses — that is, activities such as contract negotiation — and “non-chargeable” expenses such as political advocacy. All teachers may be forced to pay for “chargeable” expenses but can request a reimbursement for “non-chargeable expenses.”

The plaintiffs argue that there is no difference between political activity and public sector collective bargaining, a charge Ravani refuted as “ridiculous.”

The Friedrichs case comes in the wake of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn in which the court was presented with the option of overruling fees that workers pay as their “fair share” of the union’s costs.

Instead, in a more narrow decision, the justices ruled that the employees in question, home health aides employed through the Illinois Medicaid program, were not public employees. Thus they were not subject to a rule in Illinois similar to the California rule, the court said.

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs in the California case, said the practical goal of the lawsuit is “to convert the entire country to an open-shop system.”

The plaintiffs have asked the 9th Circuit to rule promptly without oral arguments — and against them, as would be consistent with existing case law. That way, they can appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is no set timeline, but the appeals court likely would have to rule by the end of the year in order for the Supreme Court to hear the case during its 2014-15 term, Pell said.

Experts and advocates on both sides of the debate split sharply speculating on how the Supreme Court would rule, should it take up the case.

In the Harris case out of Illinois, Justice Antonin Scalia was seen as the swing vote.

During oral arguments, Scalia made a number of points that suggested the precedent that allows unions to charge fees but requires that they distinguish between chargeable and non-chargeable expenses was good law, said Lee Adler, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Scalia did not appear to be prepared to overturn it, Adler said.

For his part, Pell, the advocate for the teachers who are suing the state, noted that the majority Supreme Court opinion — which Scalia joined — made a number of points that the plaintiffs in the California case had raised in earlier court filings. If the plaintiffs are successful, it would force the unions to radically change the way they operate.

Unions, unable to count on a steady revenue stream, would have to focus more internally on fundraising and membership matters, Adler said.

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