For somebody who says she is pro-union, public school assistant principal Bhavini Bhakta certainly has her union worried.
She is one of the plaintiffs in Bain v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit that could end the ability of public-sector unions to force workers like her to support its political activities. It is one of three cases vying for the Supreme Court's attention that could be a serious blow to public-sector unions.
"I would like to see CTA reformed so that it actually represents us. I do believe in labor unions," Bhakta, a registered Democrat, told the Washington Examiner. "I just don't believe that what we have now works at all."
Under California law, unions can charge teachers for expenses related to collective bargaining as well as the unions' political activities, regardless of whether the teachers support that political spending. Bain v. CTA argues that the political fees are unconstitutional under the First Amendment and dissenting teachers such as Bhakta shouldn't have to pay for them. Private-sector union workers already have the right to opt out of those fees under the Supreme Court's 1988 Beck decision.
Bhakti, an assistant principal at Arcadia Unified School District in Arcadia, Calif., and her co-plaintiffs, teachers April Bain and Clare Sobetski, are being represented with help from StudentsFirst, the nonprofit group founded by education reformer Michelle Rhee.
Should Bhakta and her co-plaintiffs prevail, it could be a severe financial blow to the unions, which depend on the funding to their political spending. The Supreme Court already has taken a skeptical view of these fees. In 2012's Knox v. SEIU, it said the union could not make members pay a one-time special assessment for political spending without giving them the opportunity to opt out first.
Bain v. CTA is before the West Coast's 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the more liberal appeals courts. "We are just waiting on a date for trial arguments," said Josh Lipshutz, the attorney for the plaintiffs. Appeals of appeals court decisions go to the Supreme Court.
"We're not in a position to comment on the case, which we are actively litigating at the Court of Appeals," CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs said.
Also vying for the Supreme Court's attention are Yohn v. California Teachers Association and Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Both ask if state government employees can be forced to pay so-called "security fees" to the unions that represent their workplace as a condition of employment. Such fees are common provision in public-sector union contracts. Losing them would be a severe financial blow to the unions.
The justices deadlocked 4-4 last year on a case similar to Yohn and Janus called Friedrichs v. CTA. Justice Antonin Scalia's death prevented a tie-breaking vote, leaving the question unresolved by the court. Now that Justice Neil Gorsuch has replaced Scalia, the court may decide to take up the issue of compelled union dues again.
Bain v. CTA doesn't go as far as the other cases, Lipshutz noted, since it doesn't challenge the ability of the unions to charge for costs strictly relating to collective bargaining. "My clients don't oppose being in a union," Lipshutz said. They just want the union to focus on representing them.
The unions nevertheless fear the case. When a District Court judge ruled against the plaintiffs in 2015, CTA called it "the latest example of corporate interests reinterpreting the First Amendment to silence the collective voice of the nation's working men and women and undermine the democratic process within unions."
Organized labor and its allies in the Democratic Party have been bracing for a major hit to union power since Gorsuch was confirmed. "This justice is poised to cast the fifth vote to make it next to impossible for public-sector labor unions to organize," said Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former secretary of labor, in an April speech to the United Steelworkers union.
Bhakta says her local union does a good job of representing its members and negotiating with the school board. Her objection is with the leaders of the state headquarters. Bhakta was active in education policy advocacy at the state level only to find that the union was blocking reforms she supported.
She recalls one instance in which she was testifying in favor of a measure with several dozen teachers and parents. The union sent a single lobbyist who nevertheless swayed the committee. Afterward the lobbyist told Bhakta, "Teachers don't want this bill," ignoring that she and many of her fellow activists that day were teachers.
It was a stark contrast from her local chapter, which surveys its members regularly to decide on policy, Bahkta said. With CTA's headquarters, however, there was "no communication whatsoever." She decided that being forced to pay for that kind of representation wasn't fair.
"I don't think the idea that the union owns this [security clause] money is accurate. The union should have to earn this," she said. "Every organization needs to cater to their members."