Dan Morain

By Dan Morain
July 18, 2015

  • California Teachers Association faces a major test in the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Conservatives shift their assault on CTA and other unions to the courts
  • Same-sex marriage, Democratic politics are implicated in Friedrichs v. CTA

For decades, organized labor, particularly the union that represents public school teachers, has been checking off boxes in California.

Pass an initiative guaranteeing school funding? Yes. Kill an initiative to allow tax-funded vouchers for private schools? Easy. Crush ballot measures to bar public employee unions from using dues for political campaigns? Check, check and recheck. The union and its allies eviscerated that notion on three different ballots.

Labor dominates politics in California, helping to elect this governor and other Democratic statewide officeholders and a majority of the legislators. But 2016 could be very different.

There will be electoral challenges. Nationally, Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Republican who made his name by attacking that state’s public employee unions, seems to be a formidable candidate.

In California, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican, are preparing an initiative that would reduce public employee pensions. Big though each battle could be, neither is the main event.

The real threat will occur in a forum where campaign consultants and donations matter little, the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices have agreed to hear a case that challenges public employee unions’ authority to collect dues from dissident members, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

No doubt, liberals still feel the afterglow of the Supreme Court’s decisions upholding the Affordable Care Act and affirming the constitutionality of marriage equality. But this is a court controlled by appointees of Republican presidents.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the landmark majority opinion in the marriage equality case but is also the Ronald Reagan-appointee who in 2010 authored Citizens United, which has led to ever larger sums being spent by corporations and wealthy people on federal campaigns.

“Look at the composition of the court and it makes you nervous,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

Seemingly all the conservative legal minds who matter are involved in the attack on the California Teachers Association, as are some politicians with scores to settle, former Gov. Pete Wilson among them. The Cato Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, and National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund filed briefs urging review.

The Center for Individual Rights, a conservative and tax-exempt law firm in Washington, D.C., is leading the charge on behalf of another tax-exempt entity, Christian Educators Association International, and 10 Californians who are or were public school teachers.

They want the justices to overturn a 1977 decision that authorizes union workers to withhold the portion of their dues used for political activities but requires them to help pay for union activities such as contract negotiations.

Unions have a way of angering the rest of us. Labor also balances the power against money spent in campaigns by conservative billionaires.

To read expanded column, click here.