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Court Allows Teachers' Union To Charge Agency Fees

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Washington--A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the right of a local teachers' union to charge members of the bargaining unit who do not belong to the union for some activities that are not directly tied to labor negotiations.

The Justices disagreed widely, however, on the range of activities for which so-called agency fees can be assessed.

Eight Justices, citing different reasons, ruled in Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association (Case No. 89-1217) that teachers' unions cannot use nonmembers' fees to support political lobbying that is unrelated to collective bargaining.

In another part of the decision, all nine Justices held that the fees can be used to pay for the cost of the local's affiliation with state and national organizations. In yet another part, five Justices upheld the use of fees by locals to send delegates to national union conventions and meetings.

The Court issued four opinions that were supported in whole or in part by varying numbers of Justices.

The Lehnert case pitted the Michigan Education Association, the National Education Association, and the local union against six instructors at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. The faculty members protested the union's use of their agency fees for lobbying, public relations, and union forums.

Lawyers for both sides in the dispute claimed victory in the wake of the High Court's decision.

The National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, which represented the college faculty members, said it was particularly pleased with the Justices' decision barring the use of nonmembers' fees for lobbying and public relations.

"On balance, it was more of a victory for nonunion employees than a loss," said Raymond J. LaJeunesse Jr., a lawyer for the group.

"Lobbying was probably the largest issue," he continued. "We consider that part of it a victory."

Mr. LaJeunesse said the ruling makes it clear that fees cannot be used to support lobbying, even though the Justices cited different reasons in reaching that conclusion.

The general counsel of the National Education Association, meanwhile, said that the union had won on the most important points presented in the case.

The Court's decision was a "mixed bag [and] we got the bigger part of the bag," said Robert H. Chanin, the union's top lawyer. "We're overjoyed."

"We have a 9-to-0 vote on the critical issue: Every Justice said you can charge for parent-organization expenses," Mr. Chanin said.

He added that the Court held that union locals "can charge for things that affect the outcome of bargaining, even if these are not part of the bargaining process."

Mr. Chanin said the impact of the Court's decision prohibiting the use of nonmembers' agency fees to support lobbying would be insignificant.

"We're going to have minimal difficulty in adjusting to it," he said. "It was hardly unanticipated."

In a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Court upheld agency-shop arrangements under which nonunion employees are assessed a fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment. The Court added, however, that the First Amendment bars a union from using such funds for ideological or political purposes not directly related to its collective-bargaining function.

Under the Ferris State agency-fee arrangement, the nonunion instructors who filed the suit were required to pay a fee equivalent to union dues.

In an earlier phase of the Lehnert case, which goes back 10 years, a federal district court upheld some of the fees charged by the local union, but not others. Later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the nonmember fees.

Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote the principal opinion for the Court. He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justices Byron R. White, John Paul Stevens, and Thurgood Marshall.

Justice Blackmun noted that although the Justices "have consistently looked to whether non-ideological expenses are 'germane to collective bargaining,' we have never interpreted that test to require a direct relationship between the ex4pense at issue and some tangible benefit to the dissenters' bargaining unit."

"We therefore conclude that a local bargaining representative may charge objecting employees" for costs related to its membership in state and national affiliates, even if the latter groups' activities "were not performed for the direct benefit of the objecting employees' bargaining unit," Justice Blackmun held.

He added, however, that this ruling "does not serve to grant a local union carte blanche to expend dissenters' dollars for bargaining activities wholly unrelated to the employees in their unit."

"The union may surely not, for example, charge objecting employees" for a donation to an unrelated group "for the purpose of ... promoting unionism generally," Justice Blackmun noted.

In other action last week, the Court agreed to allow U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr to participate in oral arguments next fall in the Dekalb County, Ga., school-desegregation case.

The Court is widely expected to use the case, Freeman v. Pitts (No. 89-1290), to define the point at which formerly segregated school systems become unitary and may be released from federal-court supervision.

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