Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) this January returned to work following a six-day strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District. But as that battle was ending, a more significant one was being launched. On January 22, Irene Seager, a teacher in Los Angeles’ Porter Ranch area, filed suit in federal court against the union and the school district challenging the union’s authority to limit dues opt-outs by dissenting employees to an annual window of just 30 days. Seager also wants a refund of dues she already paid. Unlike a more expansive suit filed against the union and the school district months ago by another teacher, Thomas Few, this one seeks class-action status. The case is part of a growing number of public-sector employee suits in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Janus ruling last June.
As Union Corruption Update has explained (here and here), the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last June 27 in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, was the most important ruling relating to public-sector unionism in more than 40 years. Nonmember state and local employees covered by a union contract, ruled the Court, cannot be required to pay partial dues, also known as “fare share” or “agency” fees, to the union as a prerequisite for keeping their jobs. Mark Janus, a civil servant for the State of Illinois, had sued his union, an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for deducting about $45 per month in agency fees from his paycheck. Janus effectively was challenging the constitutionality of the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which affirmed the right of public employee unions to deduct these fees. In last year’s Janus case, however, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, concluded that a union cannot exact such dues without first securing a worker’s affirmative consent and informing that worker of his or her right to choose whether or not to support a union.
The ruling has been a catalyst for lawsuits by dissenting workers covered by a union contract, some of which are going beyond Janus. One of them, Thomas Few, a special education instructor in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), filed suit last November against United Teachers of Los Angeles and the school district. He’s now got company in the form of Irene Seager, a teacher at Porter Ranch Community School in the San Fernando Valley and a member of UTLA. On January 22, Seager, represented by the Los Angeles firm of Smith & Myers LLP and the Springfield, Va.-based nonprofit National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against UTLA, the LAUSD and the Attorney General of California contesting the union’s imposition of a 30-day “window period” within a given year that had been designed to maximize dues revenues with or without an employee’s consent. That rule was created months prior to – and indeed, in anticipation of – the Janus decision. This is a class-action suit. William Messenger, staff attorney for the Right to Work foundation, notes that Justice Alito’s majority opinion states that before a union can deduct dues, the affected employee must “clearly and affirmatively” consent to waive his or her First Amendment rights. The union did not secure such consent. As such, many teachers in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California have a basis for a challenge.
Irene Seager’s tenure as a union member was brief, but it has been a learning experience. Last April 6, she signed a card authorizing UTLA, with the compliance of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to deduct fair share dues from her paycheck. For California as a whole, these payments average about $650 a year, or roughly two-thirds what full union members pay; in Los Angeles, the figure is around $750. At the time, this commitment was a requirement for employment. Two months later, the U.S. Supreme handed down its Janus decision, making such exactions voluntary. In response, Seager resigned her union membership and stopped making dues payments. The union, unimpressed, continued to deduct membership dues on the premise that Seager had not begun to withhold her payments within the 30-day window. Seager counters that UTLA officials never bothered to inform her of her First Amendment rights when she signed her dues authorization, and for that reason, the action is unconstitutional.
Teachers union officials insist that such contracts are voluntary, and like other contracts, are legally binding and don’t abridge free speech rights. They add that “maintenance of dues contracts” have been upheld in federal and state courts. “Members can drop out at any time,” said Laura Juran, chief counsel for the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the parent union of UTLA. “But like a gym membership, they still signed a contract to maintain paying dues. I am confident we will prevail.” Yet this position overlooks the fact that the teachers who signed those maintenance contracts were not notified of the fact that they were waiving their rights. It would be difficult to justify such deception simply because it occurred outside of an arbitrarily selected 30-day period.
These sorts of lawsuits might clog the courts in the short run, but they are necessary to protecting contractual rights of public-sector employees in the long run. When Irene Seager filed her suit, seven other lawsuits already had been filed on behalf of California teachers since the Janus decision. And this is a nationwide trend. Indeed, the National Education Association alone is a defendant in at least four dozen such complaints across the country.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles, one way or another, will survive. Membership among credentialed teachers in the LAUSD system has declined slightly since last June, but remains at around 90 percent. And this January’s six-day strike, for the most part, was a success for the union. The tentative three-year settlement, among other things, mandates a 6 percent raise for teachers (3 percent retroactive to the 2017-18 school year plus 3 percent through the current school year) and a concession from the school district not to increase classroom sizes in order reduce expenses. The ultimate issue, however, is worker liberty. Reluctant unionized employees, including teachers, shouldn’t have to feel captive.