Teaching Profession

Mass., Calif. Courts Weigh In on Nonunion Teachers’ Fees

By John Gehring — September 04, 2002 3 min read
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Union officials and right-to-work advocates are both declaring victory after two separate rulings involving fees for nonunion teachers in Massachusetts and California.

A 13-year-old case in Massachusetts ended July 17 when the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission ruled that the state’s largest teachers’ union and the National Education Association must pay back $87,000 in overcharged fees collected from 350 teachers in the state between 1987 and 1992.

The teachers, represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Springfield, Va.-based nonprofit group that provides free legal aid to employees who believe their rights have been violated by unions, argued that the money was being used for political activity and other work unrelated to collective bargaining.

Under Massachusetts law, unions can collect what are called agency fees from teachers who choose not to be members, but the money must be used for collective bargaining and can’t be directed toward the unions’ political efforts.

“It’s an important victory because no one should be forced to support a cause they don’t agree with,” said Daniel Cronin, the director of legal information for the right-to-work foundation.

The case was brought in 1989 by Jim Belhumeur, a one-time president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate in Springfield, Mass., who objected to the union’s political activity and was later suspended from the organization for refusing to pay full union dues.

“You shouldn’t have to pay to hold a job,” Mr. Belhumeur said. “Unions are necessary, but you can be responsible about it. You don’t have to have exorbitant fees. The main thing [in his case] was to prove they weren’t spending the money on collective bargaining.”

But Jerry Spindel, a spokesman with the 90,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said the unions’ state and local affiliates would still be allowed to keep $315,000 the teachers had paid into escrow accounts during the protracted court fight.

“The vast majority of the [union fees] were deemed legitimate,” Mr. Spindel said. “We did very well.”

California Ruling

In another case involving union fees, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled on Aug. 4 that local affiliates of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA, must provide teachers with an independent verification of how their agency fees were calculated.

The case began in 2000 when a San Jose, Calif., teacher and seven other teachers from around the state sued the 295,000-member CTA and some of its local affiliates alleging the unions had violated the standards for disclosure laid out in a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, the Supreme Court ruled that union officials must provide an independent breakdown of a union’s expenses as a basis for calculating agency fees.

The 9th Circuit court, based in San Francisco, ruled that nonunion members would be unable to know if they were being forced to pay for union activities unrelated to collective bargaining without an independent evaluation.

“We hold that, while a formal audit is not required, the union must provide a statement of its chargeable and nonchargeable expenses, together with an independent verification that the expenses were actually incurred,” Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder wrote in the opinion for the three-judge panel.

Beverly Tucker, the chief counsel for the CTA, characterized the decision as a victory for the union. She noted, for example, that the court ruled the union didn’t have to hold separate hearings for all 900 locals to determine what is considered a fair agency fee, but could continue holding consolidated hearings.

“We are thrilled with this decision,” she said.

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