High Court To Weigh Union-Fee Litigation; Schools' Impact Eyed

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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that turns on whether nonunion employees must exhaust an arbitration process when they challenge the fees they must pay unions for collective bargaining.

The case the high court accepted late last month involves airline pilots, but could hold implications for the major teachers' unions and for school employees who refuse to join the unions but still must pay so-called "agency fees."

Those fees cover the costs of collective bargaining and other services that benefit employees who opt not to join a union but work in an "agency shop" situation, under which an employer and union negotiate a single contract covering all employees. Such is the case for teachers in many, but not all, school districts.

Under a series of Supreme Court rulings, nonunion members cannot be required to pay for a union's political activities or other expenses not related to collective bargaining. But numerous legal clashes have arisen over the details of how the unions calculate the fees charged to their nonmembers and how the nonmembers may go about challenging the fees.

At issue in Air Line Pilots Association v. Miller (Case No. 97-428) is whether nonunion Delta Air Lines pilots who objected to the amount of their agency fees were required to exhaust an arbitration process before taking their challenge to federal court. The high court agreed on Nov. 26 to hear the case during its current term.

Richard Wilkof, a staff lawyer with the National Education Association, said the union will watch the Miller case closely and may file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the pilots' union. "It could very well have implications for agency-fee arbitrations in the public education context," he said.

Teachers' Union View

He said the NEA is often "put in a bind" by the nonmembers who challenge the fees they are charged for collective bargaining. Some challengers go through arbitration, while others go directly to court, requiring the union to defend its fees in two different arenas, he said.

Some 13,000 of 44,000 NEA agency-fee payers objected to the amount of their fees last year, Mr. Wilkof said. The NEA has some 2.3 million members nationwide.

In a 1986 ruling in the case of Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, the Supreme Court said public employee unions were required to offer "expeditious" arbitration procedures to nonmembers who challenge their agency fees.

But the lower federal courts are split on whether fee challengers must exhaust those procedures before filing a federal lawsuit. In the case involving the pilots' union, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the nonunion pilots who were challenging their agency fees were not required to exhaust the arbitration procedure because they never agreed to arbitration.

The case also raises the question of whether the federal courts must accept an arbitrator's findings of fact about the financial calculations of the agency fees.

The Delta pilots who challenged the union fees were represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which has also filed numerous challenges in recent years to agency fees charged by the NEA. ("Teachers Allege Improper Use of Union Dues," May 28, 1997.)

Raymond J. LaJeunesse Jr., a lawyer with the Springfield, Va.-based foundation, said he was not sure that the pilots' case would automatically have implications for the teachers' unions.

He said that the right of teachers and other public employees to challenge mandatory union fees was based on their First Amendment right of free association, while the pilots' right to challenge their agency fees was based on a federal statute, the Railway Labor Act.

"The Supreme Court could rule this is a question peculiar to the Railway Labor Act," he said.

But Mr. Wilkof of the NEA said that any high court decision that further defined the requirements of the Chicago Teachers Union case would indeed have an impact for public school employees.

Reviews Denied

In separate action, the high court last week:

  • Rebuffed an appeal by the New Orleans school district of lower court rulings that threw out its lawsuit seeking to recover asbestos-removal costs from W.R. Grace & Co. The lower courts said the district filed its suit against Grace and other asbestos manufacturers long after the statute of limitations had expired. The appeal was Orleans Parish School Board v. United States Gypsum Co. (No. 97-326).
  • Declined to hear the appeal of a blind student who sued the Atlanta district because officials quashed his efforts to participate on his high school track team. A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the student, Decharleuno J. Hall, had failed to exhaust procedures under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The appeal was Hall v. Atlanta Public School System (No. 97-553).

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