Seven teachers in California filed a class-action lawsuit seeking repayment of fees previously paid to their union, after the Supreme Court recently ruled unions cannot collect fees from nonmembers to make up for the cost of collective bargaining.
It’s the kind of case that could potentially cause further damage to teachers’ unions, after last week’s ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31. In that decision, the justices ruled 5-4 that compelling nonmembers to pay fees violates their First Amendment rights. They also decided that public employees must affirmatively opt into their unions, rather than having to opt out.
“This lawsuit will enable teachers like me to recover the agency fees that we were wrongly forced to pay against our will,” said Scott Wilford, the plaintiff in the new lawsuit, which was filed in the Central District of California’s federal court, in a statement.
Wilford and another petitioner, Rebecca Friedrichs, were both plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, another case involving agency fees that went to the Supreme Court in 2016. In that case, the court handed down a 4-4 decision after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, affirming the lower court’s ruling that agency fees were not unconstitutional.
The amount that teachers have been charged in agency fees varies, so it’s not clear how much the plaintiffs will be demanding from their unions.
About half of the country—22 states—have until now allowed unions to charge agency fees to nonmembers.
The American Federation of Teachers most recently had 94,000 agency-fee payers, while the National Education Association had about 100,000.
Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, said that this lawsuit is a direct attack on the unions. This lawsuit “should be understood for what it is—a bid to ensure workers must fend for themselves and not have the opportunity to live a better life,” she said in a statement to Education Week.
Weingarten said that the AFT and its affiliates are working to comply with the Janus decision, but that the ruling doesn’t mandate the repayment of fees that plaintiffs have demanded.
But Matt Frendewey, an education policy consultant who previously worked as a spokesman for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said that teachers who felt the union didn’t represent them are owed this repayment.
Because the court ruled that agency fees were a violation of public employees’ First Amendment rights, this money was “improperly collected” from teachers from the beginning, said Frendewey, who is familiar with the plaintiffs and the filings.
“This is about righting that wrong,” he said, and “making those teachers whole by recouping those fees.”
Advocates on both sides of the issue say that this won’t be the last lawsuit for repayment of agency fees in the wake of the Janus decision.
As long as unions give workers collective voice, private interest groups will be looking for ways to dilute their power, said Karla Walter, the director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a left-leaning lobbying group.
“There is no reason to think that corporate lobbying groups are going to stop working against workers’ rights to unionize,” she said.
Frendewey also predicted that lawsuits will soon be filed in other states affected by the Janus decision, saying that workers are owed restitution.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.