A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Tuesday heard oral arguments on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by several California teachers against their union, which is desperately hoping it never has to address the core issues in the case.
Lead plaintiff Bethany Mendez, a Freemont special education instructor, originally filed suit in March alleging the California Teachers Association refused to honor her request to opt out of union membership and dues in the wake of Janus v. AFSCME, a June 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming that union participation is voluntary for public employees.
Six co-plaintiffs later joined the case, which also seeks class action status on behalf of similarly situated teachers.
The suit also names the National Education Association, the school districts of each plaintiff and the state of California as defendants.
In July, however, attorneys for the union asked for a dismissal, arguing Mendez “voluntarily” signed a “private” — and binding — membership card. The motion, which was originally scheduled for consideration in September but subsequently delayed until this month, also asserts there is no state action in a private transaction.
But attorneys for the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit policy organization representing Mendez and the others, argue those interpretations ignore the clear language and intent of Janus.
“Janus protects the right of public employees to decline union dues deduction,” said Karin Sweigart, Freedom Foundation litigation counsel. “But it also makes clear that anytime someone signs up for dues deduction, they are waiving their First Amendment rights— and Constitutional rights cannot be waived unknowingly.”
In order for an employee’s dues deduction to be valid, Sweigart notes, the union must be able to demonstrate “informed consent” by presenting evidence he or she was advised of the full impact of their decision before signing up.
None of the teachers involved in the lawsuit were advised they were waiving Constitutional rights. In fact, Mendez and the others allege they were lied to by the union, which pressured them to sign a membership form they believed was still mandatory.
Sweigart takes further issue with the unions’ assertion that a membership contract is a private agreement in which the government plays no role.
“The government is very much a partner with the union in this enterprise,” she said. “The government employs the teachers and deducts union dues from their paychecks on the unions’ behalf. The government collectively bargained with the union to take the money based solely on what the union says. If the union has no right to the money, the government is wrong to take it.”
Sweigart said the motion to dismiss is a familiar union tactic.
“The unions have vast resources, while many of their members live paycheck to paycheck,” she continued. “Far too many union members still believe they are required to pay dues. Union members have the right to choose whether they believe membership is valuable to them or not.”
With offices in Washington, Oregon, California and, since October, Ohio, the organization exists to help workers exercise their rights and has the wherewithal to stay in the game to the last hand.