Los Angeles Teacher Sues Union, School District Over Forced Representation

The union calls them “service fees.” In practice, they amount to dues. And public school teachers are among those who believe that it is a distinction without a difference. On November 13, Thomas Few, a special education teacher in Los Angeles, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District challenging their tandem practice of deducting a large fee from salaries of teachers who remain employed but leave the union. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, Few had informed the union of his intent to resign, but was told that he would have to pay an annual “service fee” equivalent to monthly dues. The union, an affiliate of the state chapters of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, is holding firm.

The Janus decision, handed down on June 27, was the most pivotal event in state and local government employee unionism in this country in more than 40 years. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that nonmember public employees cannot be required to pay partial dues (also known as “fair share” or “agency” fees) to a union as a prerequisite for keeping their jobs. An employee for the State of Illinois, Mark Janus, had filed suit against his union, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for deducting roughly $45 per month in agency fees. In effect, he was challenging the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit v. Board of Education, which concluded that public employee unions had the authority to charge fair share fees upon nonmember workers. And he won. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, stated that a union cannot impose payments on a nonmember without first securing a worker’s affirmative consent.

The ruling subsequently has triggered lawsuits that go beyond the issue of whether a public-sector union has the authority to collect dues from unwilling workers. These suits are challenging the very principle of exclusive (i.e., monopoly) union representation. As Union Corruption Update described in October, Jade Thompson and Kathy Uradnik, respectively, a high school teacher in Ohio and a college professor in Minnesota, filed federal lawsuits against their unions, arguing that monopoly representation violated their freedom of speech. Ms. Thompson had resigned her union membership, but soon discovered that being a fee-paying nonmember made her a non-person among her colleagues and did not exempt her from playing by union rules. As for Professor Uradnik, early this December she filed a petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Janus ruling now has produced another teacher union dissenter, Thomas Few. Represented by the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and the Tustin, Calif.-based California Policy Center, Few, a special education instructor in the San Fernando Valley, which is encompassed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), is a member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). On three separate occasions since June, he had asked UTLA officials to stop withholding dues from his salary. The union responded that even if he did resign, he still would be subject to an annual “service fee” equivalent to his $80 monthly dues assessment. Moreover, his withdrawal from the union was allowable only during a specified 30-day period within the year. This amounted to forced representation as well as forced dues payment.

The LAUSD informed him that the practice was constitutional and that California law authorizes public employers to withhold dues on behalf of a union. On November 13, Few went to federal court to challenge the union and the school district. “Union leaders repeat the mantra that they’re here to serve us, but they don’t care about me or my right to choose,” he said. “I can tell you that teachers’ union leaders see me as a cash machine to fund their special interests. United Teachers of Los Angeles will not allow me to exercise my First Amendment rights because they do not want other teachers to be informed about their rights.”

In what appeared to be a gesture of Christmas good will, the union on December 9 provided Few with a $433.31 dues refund check. But he is continuing with his suit anyway. A hearing is set for February in Los Angeles federal court. UTLA’s newfound generosity is a function of expediency, not principle. For accompanying the check was a letter to Few from UTLA Executive Director Jeff Good asserting that the union retains the right to deduct dues from his salary even if he leaves the union. Good wrote: “(You) signed a separate agreement with the union, apart from your agreement to become a member, committing you to pay an amount equivalent to dues to the union irrespective of your membership status.” California Policy Center CEO Mark Bucher thinks such a practice is highly dishonest. “Arguing that Mr. Few can leave the UTLA as long as he continues to pay UTLA at the same rate is like a Vegas magician sawing a woman in half,” Bucher said. “It’s sleight-of-hand. In this case, it’s also deceptive and illegal.”

Public-sector employees, like their counterparts in the private sector, have a right to decide whether unionism is for them. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling in June affirmed that right up to a point, barring imposition of fair share dues in lieu of explicit worker consent. The lawsuits by Few, Thompson and Uradnik are taking the decision one major step further by challenging a union’s monopoly on representation of a given bargaining unit. Unions are well aware of the potential for mass attrition from their ranks if the courts rule on behalf of the plaintiffs. Would this be a bad thing? To the unions and their enablers, it would. But given escalating state and local government budgets resulting from union-negotiated contracts, a large portion of the general public would likely see this as a good thing.