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Lawsuit Contests Unions' Agency Fees in California

A lawsuit filed Tuesday against the California Teachers Association and its parent union, the National Education Association, asserts that, in California, union fees charged of nonmembers are being used for political ends, in violation of their First Amendment rights.

The suit was filed by the conservative Center for Individual Rights, on behalf of several California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International. It seeks to overturn the law in California permitting agency fees to be charged of nonmembers. (California is one of 22 states with such laws.)

Agency fees are charged to cover that portion of bargaining from which nonmembers benefit, such as negotiations over wage increases. Those teachers can typically opt out of the portion that would be put toward political activity like lobbying or supporting ballot initiatives, allowable uses of unions' general treasury funds.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up many, many suits on agency fees, free speech, and whether or not nonmembers should have to affirmatively opt out of the political portion of dues. But this case seems to go further, asserting that the collective bargaining process itself, as well as the CTA's support for certain liberal causes, violates nonmembers' beliefs and free-speech rights, and therefore that the state's agency-fee law should be overturned.

"In the course of collective bargaining, unions frequently take politically controversial positions that contradict the deeply held beliefs of some teachers, who do not believe the policies advocated by unions to be in their best interest, or in the best interest of society at large. For example, unions consistently 'bargain' for provisions requiring increased state spending, and against important educational reforms which some teachers believe would benefit teachers, students, and taxpayers," the lawsuit argues.

Whatever the outcome of this lawsuit, its location in generally union-friendly California guarantees that it will have a fair few eyeballs on it.

It's important not to confuse this issue, by the way, with donations to a union's PAC, which are voluntary, but can also be automatically deducted from paychecks in California. Opting out of such donations is yet another process.

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