WEA Supreme Court decision: 1 year later

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Michael Reitz, general counsel for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation recalls last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding the state teacher’s union practice of using money taken involuntarily from member dues to fund political activities, and elaborates on where the case stands now.

June 14, 2007. Our day started early that Thursday morning. We were expecting a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in our case against the Washington Education Association (WEA), and we knew the decision would come down this week or the next.

As I waited tensely at my desk, the alert flashed on the computer screen.

I grabbed the phone and buzzed (Evergreen Freedom Foundation Executive Director) Bob Williams. “Bob, we won. Unanimous.”

“Good,” he said, and hung up.

The rest of the day was a blur. We spent the first hour scouring the Supreme Court’s opinion. We sent out hundreds of e-mails, several press releases, and did radio interviews all day long.

We rushed to Seattle for a press conference and talked to numerous national newspapers. The question on everyone’s mind: “What does it mean?”

That day was the culmination of an intense year bringing the case to the Supreme Court. Today, having celebrated the one-year anniversary of the ruling, we’ve had time to reflect on the impact.

We’ve also been able to observe the slow pace of justice as the cases now work their way through state court.

In 2001 the WEA was found guilty of violating a law that required unions to get permission from nonmembers before using their mandatory dues for political activity. The cases eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In January 2007, several EFF staffers went to Washington, D.C., to witness the oral arguments. Thanks to donations from EFF members, we were accompanied by nearly 40 teachers from around the country.

What a day that was. After the hearing, we walked down the Supreme Court steps, cautiously optimistic that victory was ours.

And five months later, it was.

On June 14, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law as constitutional. The Court specifically addressed our centerpiece argument — unions have no constitutional entitlement to the paychecks of workers.

The Supreme Court’s ruling accomplished several things. The justices affirmed that it is constitutional to require unions to ask employees before taking their money for politics.

Similar laws on the books were protected from challenge. And the decision ensured the WEA would be held accountable for its past violations of the law.

The ruling also indicated a possible shift in the Court’s treatment of labor unions. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, noted the “enormous power” unions exercise over public employees — having the ability to “tax” them for representation.

But Scalia said this entitlement is statutory —  not a constitutional right — and can be rescinded or regulated by state legislators.

Unions, he said, have “no constitutional entitlement” to the money of workers who do not want to join. This language provides an opening for free-market advocates who want to give workers a choice about union dues.

The unanimous decision from the Supreme Court set off a wave of criticism of the WEA’s coercive tactics.

All told, more than 125 editorials and columns were written about the case.

Only one piece supported the union — and it was written by the WEA president.

Unfortunately, the WEA returned from the Supreme Court hearing and convinced the Washington Legislature to pass a bill that reduced the effectiveness of the law moving forward. We vehemently opposed the bill, which passed despite objections from the attorney general and criticism from most of the state’s major newspapers.

Where are we today?

After the ruling, both cases were remanded back to Washington courts for final resolution. Having prevailed at the Supreme Court, the state sought to impose the original penalty on the WEA, and also requested that the union pay the state’s cost of bringing the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Another key issue is how the union will comply with the law after the Legislature’s amendment.

As of this writing, the WEA and the Office of the Attorney General are negotiating a settlement to resolve these issues.

The teacher class-action lawsuit (Davenport) is on a slightly different track. The WEA argued that many issues had yet to be resolved, and the Washington Supreme Court agreed to send the case down to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments in February. The WEA requested that the teachers’ case be dismissed, arguing that while the law at issue may be constitutional, it does not allow teachers to recover money that was improperly taken and spent.

Attorney Steve O’Ban, representing the teachers, argued that teachers should indeed be entitled to a return of the money the WEA misspent.

We are now awaiting a ruling from the Court of Appeals to determine the next steps.

What’s our destination?

In the months following the victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, we have been able to evaluate the impact of the case, and more importantly, we’ve discussed the goals that motivate us.

The objective is to ensure that employees have a choice about union membership and political spending. Every union dollar spent on politics should come from a voluntary donor.

We want to ensure that government does not mandate union representation for workers. And employees deserve information about how unions spend their money.

When unions are left to attract and retain satisfied customers non-coercively, the market will determine whether they provide a needed service.

The Davenport ruling was an important victory along the way, and will be used as a platform to launch other reforms.

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