What if you had the right to assume people who refused to join your organization nevertheless wanted to support your political agenda? What if you also had the right to deduct money for your political agenda directly from the paychecks of those non-members?
This “what if” scenario is no pipe dream for the Washington Education Association (WEA). On June 24, a Washington Appeals Court panel ruled 2-1 that the WEA had those rights, and that a state law designed to protect the free speech of teachers violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The state attorney general has called on the state supreme court to review the decision.
The law in question made it illegal for the WEA to deduct money intended for political purposes from the paychecks of non-member teachers without the permission of those teachers. Paradoxically, the Appeals Court ruled this law– intended to protect the First Amendment rights of teachers–violates the First Amendment because it is “unduly burdensome” for the teacher union to comply.
“Forcing nonmembers to contribute money to a labor union amounts to compelled association with the union and impacts their First Amendment free speech and association rights,” declared the Appeals Court. “Nevertheless, the State’s interest in facilitating collective bargaining and preventing free ridership justifies the compelled association,” it concluded.
The Appeals Court ruling reverses the effect of a campaign finance initiative, I-134, that was approved by 72 percent of the state’s voters in 1992. The initiative stopped union officials from deducting funds for political activities from the paycheck of a teacher who was not a union member without explicit, affirmative authorization from the teacher.
Teachers who decide not to join the WEA, often for political or ideological reasons, become “agency fee payers” and must pay the regular WEA member dues of more than $700 per year. The free speech rights of those non-member teachers were protected by state law RCW 42.17.760, which states:
“A labor organization may not use agency shop fees paid by an individual who is not a member of the organization to make contributions or expenditures to influence an election or to operate a political committee, unless affirmatively authorized by the individual.”
That procedural requirement, according to the Appeals Court, is unconstitutional. “By requiring an ‘opt-in’ procedure, [the law] presumes that non-members object to the use of their fees for political purposes,” stated the court.
In July, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) unanimously voted to appeal the ruling to the state supreme court, and Attorney General Christine Gregoire filed a motion with the state supreme court to appeal the decision. More than 500 citizens contacted Gregoire and PDC within days of the unexpected ruling, asking them to actively pursue the case.
“We hope the State Supreme Court will uphold our nation’s constitution and the free speech rights of teachers by overturning the outrageous ruling from the Court of Appeals,” said Bob Williams, president of the Washington-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF).
EFF filed the original complaint against the WEA that prompted the attorney general to sue the union for violating the law. The case was on appeal after the court found the WEA guilty of five years of violations, with the union agreeing even before the trial that it had “committed multiple violations” of the law. For willful violation of the law, the WEA was ordered to pay $590,000 in fines and state legal costs, and it has since been required to return about $300,000 to teachers. (See “WA Teacher Union Found Guilty,” School Reform News, October 2001.)
In 1997, the WEA had settled another case related to the same law for $430,000. (See “Washington Teachers’ Union Faces Lawsuit,” School Reform News, April 1997.)
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
A short background document on the case, “PDC v. WEA,” prepared by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, is available online at http://www.effwa.org/pdfs/pdc_wea.pdf.
The attorney general’s petition for review of the Appeals Court ruling is available online at http://www.effwa.org/weavspdc.html.