Teaching Profession

Supreme Court to Hear Case on Teachers’ Union Agency Fees

By Vaishali Honawar — September 26, 2006 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to take up the issue of when a teachers’ union may spend the money it collects in the form of agency fees from nonmembers on its political causes.

The justices agreed to review a Washington state law that requires nonmembers to affirmatively consent, or opt in, before a union may spend their fees on its political agenda. Meanwhile, the court also agreed to take up a case involving the federal Impact Aid statute and whether states may reduce their funding to districts with federal installations by the same amount of aid provided by the federal government.

In action in the days before the official start of its new term on Oct. 2, the court agreed on Sept. 26 to add the cases to its docket.

In the teachers’ union case, the court accepted an appeal from the state of Washington of a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that struck down the provision as a violation of the union’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

The appeals in Washington v. Washington Education Association and Davenport v. Washington Education Association (Cases No. 05-1589 and 05-1687) involve fees paid by workers who choose not to join the union but who benefit from the collective-bargaining process. Unions collect an “agency shop fee” from such workers.

John M. West, a District of Columbia lawyer representing the Washington Education Association, said nonmember workers are given the choice at the beginning of each year to state whether they want a portion of their dues to go toward political causes. Those who choose not to don’t have to pay that portion.

Mr. West said every nonmember also gets a lengthy notice on how the union spends its money.

“They get a full accounting of how much goes for collective bargaining, how much goes for lobbying, public relations, organizing, as well as for political expenditures,” he said.

But the Washington attorney general’s office and groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs against the union say that there ought to be additional safeguards to ensure that any funds left over after collective bargaining are not used for political purposes without requiring affirmative consent from the nonmembers.

A 1992 Washington state law required that unions get affirmative consent from each worker before using any dues for political purposes. Earlier this year, the state high court struck down the provision, saying it violated the union’s First Amendment rights, and it held that the union’s annual offer to reduce the fees for those who object to the use of their dues for political causes was sufficient.

Michael Reitz, a lawyer for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Olympia, Wash., that first filed a complaint against the union that led to the case, said the nonmember opt-in is required because the union has in past instances used funds that were left over after collective bargaining for political causes, violating the wishes of such employees who did not want to contribute to the union’s political causes.

Getting the authorization upfront is not enough, Mr. Reitz said, adding that his group got involved after a number of workers who were not union members complained to the foundation.

The WEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union and an affiliate of the National Education Association, represents more than 70,000 workers in 370 locals. Of those, fewer than 5 percent are not union members.

In a brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers for the union argue that Washington is the only state in the nation that has made it unlawful for a union to finance what would otherwise be lawful political advocacy as a matter of state law.

Impact Aid Case

Meanwhile, in the case involving the federal Impact Aid law, the justices agreed to hear an appeal from two New Mexico districts whose state aid was reduced by the amounts of Impact Aid they had received from the federal government.

A federal appeals court had upheld the U.S. Department of Education’s regulation allowing a state to redistribute Impact Aid as long as the federal secretary of education had determined that the state had an equalized state funding system.

The appeal is Zuni Public School District No. 89 v. Department of Education (No. 05-1508).

Both the teachers’ union and Impact Aid cases will likely be argued early next year.

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