Judge Supports Teachers’ Right to Sue Local Union

Published February 1, 1999

A federal judge has added nearly 500 teachers to a federal class-action suit originally filed over five years ago by a group of teachers who argued that union officials illegally demanded payment of dues or agency fees from them. When some of the Anchorage teachers refused to pay unless provided legally required notices and disclosure statements, Anchorage School District officials threatened to fire them. Named in the suit are the Anchorage School District and two Alaska affiliates of the National Education Association, the Anchorage Education Association and NEA-Alaska, Inc.

Judge H. Russel Holland of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled to extend the suit to some 485 teachers in greater Anchorage who chose to refrain from union membership, yet received an illegal labor union demand for payment of agency fees. A teacher victory could require union officials to return all dues illegally collected during the 1992-93 school year. Teachers in Alaska pay an average $650 to $700 per year in forced dues; the union may be forced to return hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“After five years, Alaska’s educators will finally have their day in court,” said Stefan Gleason, director of legal information for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is providing free legal aid to the educators. “Legions of teachers nationwide are fed up with having their hard-earned pay seized and turned over to union officials’ pet politicians.”

Under the Foundation-won Supreme Court precedents Abood v. Detroit Board of Education and Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, teachers have the right to refrain from formal union membership and may be forced to pay only the proven cost of collective bargaining. Another Foundation Supreme Court victory, Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, prohibits unions from seizing forced fees from teachers’ paychecks without providing adequate notice and procedures, including independently audited financial disclosure.

Holland’s ruling comes after five years of litigation for the Anchorage teachers, delayed by long procedural maneuvering by union lawyers. In December 1997, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit finally paved the way for Holland’s decision by determining that full restitution for the affected teachers may be called for. But more waiting lies ahead for the teachers, whose motion for summary judgment is pending. Holland must now rule on the question of whether a trial is necessary to decide the relief to which the teachers are entitled.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.