A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled today that the California Teachers Union must bring in a third party to ensure each year that dues from non-union members aren’t going to pay for the union’s political activities.

Non-union teachers in California currently pay a compulsory "agency fee" to the union solely for collective bargaining purposes. In exchange, the union is required by law to provide sufficient assurances to these non-union members that such fees are only used for collective bargaining and no other union activities.

Friday’s ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the unions to meet their guarantees by having a third party come in and look at the books. Union watchdogs hailed it as a major victory.

"The court’s decision is a small step toward preventing teachers from getting ripped off by union officials," said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, which helped to bring the original case to court on behalf of teacher Kim Sheffield in March 2000.

"For too long, union bosses have gotten away with hiding their use of employees' forced union dues to support their radical political agenda," he added.

CTA Spokeswoman Diane Ross said the ruling on the audits was just one of several issues in the case centering on union use of dues, the rest of which they believe they won. She said the debate was never over whether they would provide the teachers with an audit, but how it was going to be provided. She said they just didn’t agree that a third party was necessary.

"In no way, shape or form can anyone come in and say we weren’t making information available to people," said Ross.

The ruling comes on the heels of several lawsuits involving the National Education Association, the national affiliate of CTA and the National Right to Work Foundation, which accuse the union of illegally using member dues to elect Democrats and intimidating teachers who choose not to pay their dues directly to the union’s political coffers.

Just last month, a judge rescinded his own order fining the NEA $800,000 for not responding to a campaign finance lawsuit filed by the foundation in April. The lawsuit contends that the union funneled $500,000 of dues money illegally into political campaigns.

There was a dispute over when the union received the lawsuit and the deadline for which it had to respond. As a result, the judge rescinded his punitive order July 12 after receiving the response and ordered the trial to move ahead as normal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.