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Judge Rejects Suit to Let Teachers' Union Members Avoid Political Spending

A federal district judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to allow teachers to join unions, but opt out of paying the portion of dues that go for political expenses.

The suit against the major national teachers unions and their California affiliates was a twist on a high-profile case involving the unions pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter case asks the justices to overrule a longstanding precedent and no longer require teachers who do not wish to join the union to pay service fees for collective-bargaining.

In the Bain v. California Teachers Association case decided Sept. 28, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson of Los Angeles ruled against a suit brought on behalf of four teachers who work in Los Angeles, Arcadia, and West Contra Costa school districts. 

The teachers are all dues-paying members of the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers and want to remain members. But they argued that California's "agency-shop" system effectively compels them to fully join the union and be required to pay dues that go for collective-bargaining activities and political activities.

The lawsuit was organized by the group Students First and the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which is behind the Vergara v. California lawsuit that challenged teacher tenure in the state.

The plaintiffs contend that the combination of state law establishing an agency shop and union practices coerce teachers into having to pay for the unions' political activities.

The plaintiffs' lawsuit said full union membership brought certain benefits in areas such as disability insurance, free legal representation, life insurance, and others that are not available to non-member agency-fee payers.

"The unions provide these employment-related benefits directly to members instead of bargaining with the employer school districts to make them available to all teachers," the lawsuit argued. "And the unions tout these benefits to deter teachers from exercising their First Amendment rights. By withholding these benefits from non-members, the unions, under color of state law, punish teachers for refusing to contribute to unions' political and ideological expenditures."

In his ruling, the judge noted that the unions "engage in significant political and ideological expenditures against the will of many of their members."

"The expenditures go to causes that are disagreeable to some teachers: political donations go almost entirely to the Democratic Party, some teachers do not support education-related measures supported by the unions, and the unions support causes that are unrelated to education altogether," the judge said.

However, Wilson disagreed with the plaintiffs on the key question of whether there was "state action" inherent in union membership that implicates the First Amendment free speech rights of the members. 

He analyzed the case under four separate legal tests, and under each the union's "bundling" of its benefits for members could not be attributed to the state, he said.

"It appears that plaintiffs' ultimate grievance is the lack of state action in prohibiting bundled employment-related benefit and political expenditures as a part of membership dues," the judge said. "Because plaintiffs fail to establish a connection between the unions' relationship with a government actor and the specific decision to bundle membership requirements, they cannot establish state action on this theory."

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