Teacher lawsuit in California bucks union fees

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Ten California schoolteachers filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the politically powerful California Teachers Association to escape paying union fees that they claim violate their free-speech rights.

The teachers — represented by the conservative Center for Individual Rights — are taking aim at laws that allow unions to collect certain fees from workers who don't want to join. The lawsuit argues that the fees end up supporting union lobbying and political activity, not contract negotiations as intended.

"Forcing educators to financially support causes that run contrary to their political and policy beliefs violates their First Amendment rights," Michael A. Carvin, lead counsel for the teachers, said in a statement.

CTA spokesman Frank Wells said in an email that the suit is a "baseless challenge" intended to dilute worker rights.

The lawsuit comes about five months after California voters defeated Proposition 32, which was an attempt to starve unions of the tens of millions of dollars they collect from employees or members to use to finance campaigns and political organizing.

Overall, there are about 2.4 million union members in California, and that money has helped make teachers, prison guards and other public workers some of the most feared institutions in Sacramento, where labor has longstanding ties with Democrats who now control both chambers of the Legislature and every statewide office.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court also names the National Education Association and local teacher unions. It argued that teachers who do not want to fund political activity face a difficult and intimidating "opt-out" process.

Wells, the union spokesman, said no one is forced to join a union or spend money on political activity, and he disputed the account that it was difficult for teachers to "opt out" of the fees.

"The lawsuit seems self-contradictory. It acknowledges that those represented by unions can opt-out of paying ... and then complains that they are somehow forced to pay for them," Wells wrote.

In a statement, the center said the fees can be diverted to various programs outside contract talks, including funding what it called a politically biased union magazine.

"Individual teachers have a constitutional right to decide for themselves whether to join a union and financially support its efforts," said Terry Pell, president of the center. "The government may not compel teachers to provide financial support to policies with which they fundamentally disagree."

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