CIR is representing eight California public school teachers who are compelled by law to pay agency fees to the California Teachers Association. Each of the teachers would not join or support a union if they were not required to do so by state law.
Compulsory union dues are a burden on the First Amendment rights of all public employees, but the relationship between teachers and unions highlights the constitutional problems especially well. For instance:
- Lead plaintiff Ryan Yohn thinks merit pay makes a lot of sense as a way to encourage good teaching and creating an incentive for good teachers to work in underprivileged schools. Yet he has to pay agency fees to the CTA, which refuses to negotiate over the issue.
- Yohn also disagrees with rigorous tenure protections that make it nearly impossible to dismiss incompetent teachers. The nature of most tenure provisions also mean that if a city has to layoff public employees, it is bound by contract to lay off newer teachers who are often more engaged and committed to their work. The New Yorker chronicled the costs these provisions have on municipalities in a detailed article from 2009.
More fundamentally, when the union bargains with a locality, it is essentially lobbying for the use of public resources in accordance with their policy preferences. Justice Scalia explained this best at oral arguments in Friedrichs v. CTA. He reasoned:
“The problem is that everything that is collectively bargained with the government is within the political sphere, almost by definition. Should the government pay higher wages or lesser wages? Should it promote teachers on the basis of seniority or on the basis of [sic], all of those questions are necessarily political questions.”
Unions may argue that members can already opt-out of supporting expressly political activities, but as Ryan’s example and Justice Scalia’s well-reasoned argument shows, even the union’s collective bargaining is an inherently political activity. This was on display last year in Chicago when the union demanded their collective bargaining agreement with the city include a cap on charter schools. A cap on charter schools has nothing to do with the “bread and butter” fundamentals of wages and employment policy, but it has everything to do with the union’s education policy agenda.
The expenditure of public funds and the fundamental questions about how we educate our children are political issues that everyone should be able to express an opinion. However, teachers in the twenty-three states that mandate compulsory union dues are forced to support an agenda they disagree with.
Ryan and the seven other teacher plaintiffs in Yohn v. CTA are not alone in staking out positions contrary to union policy. The 2016 Harvard/Education Next poll found that 30% of teachers oppose the union position on tenure policy. 41% of teachers were in favor of charter schools. And most striking, a majority of teachers opposed mandatory agency fees at all.
Obviously, many teachers agree with their union’s collective bargaining agenda. Those teachers have a First Amendment right to join, support, and speak out with unions or any other organization they agree with. But just like they have a First Amendment right to pursue an agenda through their union, teachers like Ryan Yohn should also have the same right to opt-out and pursue their own avenues of expression as their conscience dictates.
We believe the First Amendment protects teachers like Ryan Yohn to decide for themselves which education policies they want to support. Of course, a win in Yohn v. CTA will apply to all public employees – not just teachers – restoring their individual right to choose which organizations they want to support.