A California educator is battling a state teachers' union over his problems leaving the organization, in what his attorneys say could be a precedent-setting legal case that ultimately forces labor unions across the country to reimburse billions in back dues to their members.
Tommy Few, a special education teacher at Sepulveda Middle School in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, filed suit late last year against the United Teachers of Los Angeles – along with the Los Angeles Unified School District and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra – claiming his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association were violated when he tried to leave the UTLA following last summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME.
That ruling invalidated mandatory fees for non-members. But as a result, some unions members like Few also found themselves having second thoughts about staying on board once they learned they could save some money -- only to run into problems renouncing their membership.
“When I found out that I didn’t have to be in the union and have those dues deducted from my paycheck every month, I wanted out,” Few told Fox News. “But they tried to tell me that I could only leave during their opt-out window and that I still had to pay the dues.”
Few said that despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus case – a 5-4 decision last June that said public employees can't be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining – he faced an uphill battle trying to resign his membership from UTLA and get the school district to stop withholding dues from his paycheck.
At first, they didn't respond to his requests. Then, when he pursued litigation, the union agreed to tell the school district to stop collecting dues from him and reimbursed him for all the dues paid post-Janus.
But Few is now seeking reimbursement for dues paid since he became a teacher.
At the heart of UTLA’s argument for continuing to deduct part of Few’s wages is a clause in the California Teachers Association’s membership enrollment form, which Few signed when he took the job and joined the union, that “the agreement to pay dues continues from year to year, regardless of my membership status” -- unless the member sends a written notice opting out “not less than thirty (30) days and not more than sixty (60) days before the annual anniversary date of this agreement.”
UTLA, an affiliate of the CTA, did not respond to multiple calls from Fox News for comment, but in a letter sent to Few just weeks after the teacher’s lawyers at the Liberty Justice Center and the California Policy Center filed suit, union Executive Director Jeff Good referenced the enrollment form Few signed and noted that the affirmative consent form “is separately enforceable and effective apart from your membership.”
Good added that “rather than expend dues money on litigation” and because prior conversations had “inadvertently generated confusion,” UTLA requested the school district stop taking dues out of Few’s paychecks and reimbursed him $433.31 for the dues deducted since Few sought to leave the union.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment, while the LAUSD said in a statement that the district’s superintendent was only added to the suit for “technical reasons so that in the event [Few] prevails on his claims against UTLA, the Court could adjust any deductions that have been or would be withheld by Los Angeles Unified and provided to UTLA."
Despite the gesture by UTLA, Few and his legal team continue to pursue the lawsuit – which besides arguing that Few’s First Amendment rights were violated also seeks back dues to the date when he was hired – as they see his case as one that could ultimately end up in the Supreme Court and affect the future of labor union membership, and their bottom line, for decades to come.
“We’re hoping the court will see the obstacles unions can put in place and we workers to be able to express their intent to leave the union and be able to leave,” Mark Bucher, the chief executive officer of the California Policy Center and one of Few’s lawyers, told Fox News. “It should be crystal clear that a worker can get out of the union at any time they want and that unions can’t put restrictions and limitations on when someone can leave.”
Few’s case, which is currently being argued in federal court in the Central District of California, is among a slew of lawsuits that have been filed since the Janus ruling last summer arguing that unions have not fully complied with Janus and/or seeking refunds for workers. California teachers alone represent a huge chunk of those lawsuits.
In January, another Los Angeles-area teacher, Irene Seager, filed a lawsuit similar to Few’s seeking a refund for her back dues and challenging UTLA’s authority to limit dues opt-outs for employees to an annual window of just 30 days.
Six teachers in Northern California’s Freemont Unified School District filed suit in March against the CTA and Becerra amid claims that they were never informed that they were no longer required to have $1,500 in annual union dues deducted from their pay.
In a court filing, lawyers representing the teachers argued that the unions “regularly divert a portion of wages to financially support the unions and their political activity,” and that the teachers “never gave legally valid consent for these deductions and have expressly objected to the deductions.”
And last week, a class-action lawsuit filed on the behalf of nine government worker plaintiffs and a class of more than 2,700 workers seeks to force unions to refund hundreds of millions of dollars in agency fees paid by thousands of workers nationwide prior to the Janus ruling.
"We're putting the band back together," Liberty Justice Center President Patrick Hughes told Fox News. "The argument is once something is deemed to be unconstitutional [in the civil context] -- agency fees -- then they're deemed to be retroactively unconstitutional. ... We're taking the position that those fees should be refunded to those nonmembers."
While union membership has been on the decline for decades, their power has remained strong in the public sector. Of the 16 percent of U.S. employees working in the public sector, more than one-third are still unionized – compared with just over 6 percent in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Following the Janus ruling, union leaders argued that so-called fair share fees pay for collective bargaining and other work the union does on behalf of all employees, not just its members. More than half the states already have right-to-work laws banning mandatory fees, but most members of public-employee unions are concentrated in states that don't, including California, New York and Illinois.
At the time of the Janus ruling, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement that the decision would “further empower the corporate elites in their efforts to thwart the aspirations of millions of working people standing together for a better life.”
Fox News’ Gregg Re and The Associated Press contributed to this report.