Is the Washington state legislature trying to enact a law that would insulate its teachers’ union friends if a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision goes against them? Or is it merely trying to clarify existing law?
Depends on whom you ask.
Five nonunion teachers and the state department of education sued the union in 2000, for allegedly violating the state law that requires nonunion members to opt in before the Washington Education Association can use their fees for political activities. The case, which addresses whether the “opt-in” statute violates the union’s First Amendment rights, was argued before the high court last month. (“Court Hears Case on Use of Fees by Teachers’ Union,” Jan. 17, 2007.)
Supporters of a proposed bill, including the WEA, argue that the legislation is meant to illustrate how unions already are allowed to fund political activities.
The current law prohibits unions from using a nonunion employee’s “agency shop” fees—which the state allows the 80,000-member teachers’ union to deduct from all public education employees’ paychecks to support activities, such as collective bargaining, from which they benefit—for political campaigns and activism “unless affirmatively authorized by the individual.”
The proposed bill would amend that law to say that a union is not using nonmember money for political purposes “if it has sufficient revenues from sources other than agency shop fees in its general treasury to fund such contributions or expenditures.”
But the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia, Wash.-based think tank that has taken the WEA to court in the past, characterizes the measure as an “accounting gimmick” meant to sidestep a high court ruling, expected later this term.
The proposed changes have no bearing on the Supreme Court case, the bill’s authors maintain.
“This addition to the existing statute in no way changes, or even makes more palatable to the [high court], the First Amendment issue being argued before them,” Joe McDermott, the bill’s sponsor, told colleagues during a committee hearing on the legislation last week.
Assistant State Attorney General D. Thomas Wendel told lawmakers at the hearing that although the proposed amendment wouldn’t directly affect the pending legal challenge, “whether it would diminish the high court’s interest in deciding this [case] is another question.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week