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Lawsuit could end compulsory union dues

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By Steve Forbes
Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker required a majority of members to vote each year to certify public employee unions as their representatives, 13 percent of his state's teacher and public employee unions have been decertified. Given a choice, it seems public employees don't necessarily support union policies.

But such unions continue to hold the upper hand in 26 other states where laws guarantee them millions in tax-free revenue by requiring public employees to pay as much as $1,000 annually in union fees as a condition of employment.

A lawsuit brought by the Center for Individual Rights in April may change all this.

Filed on behalf of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International, the lawsuit claims such “agency shop laws” violate the First Amendment by forcing teachers to pay annual union fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, even when they are not members and disagree strongly with union negotiating positions.

If the lawsuit makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which seems likely, the justices could, with a single decision, give public employees in all states the constitutional right to decide for themselves whether to support a union.

The lawsuit does not challenge collective bargaining or undermine unions' legal authority to negotiate on behalf of all employees. But it does attack use of compulsory union dues to stifle disagreement and coerce employee support for union leaders' controversial positions.

If successful, it will force union officials to compete for membership like any other professional organization — by promoting policies that employees actually support.

Although teachers can opt out of paying the portion of union fees that goes directly toward political activities, the California Teachers Association still brings in more than $192 million a year tax-free, which union officials use to influence policy in a range of areas, some having little to do with education. All teachers are forced to support the union's agenda, whether they agree with it or not.

Judges have said those who benefit from an organizational “megaphone” should pay dues to support that megaphone. But union officials' assumption that teachers share their monolithic set of interests is false.

Unions can pursue as partisan and one-sided an agenda as they want. But the First Amendment requires that teachers be free to decide for themselves whether to support these efforts.

Steve Forbes is chairman of Forbes Media Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine.

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