Education reform could benefit from court case challenging union dues

Teachers in California protest a Wisconsin law affecting public-sector collective bargaining, February 2011. (AP file photo)

Teachers in California protest a Wisconsin law affecting public-sector collective bargaining, February 2011. (AP file photo)

In case you thought the Supreme Court's recent opinions had filled its Big Huge Important Ruling quota for a while ...

The court today agreed to hear a case out of California challenging mandatory dues for public-sector unions , specifically teachers unions. Georgia does not have teachers "unions" as such (only professional associations that lobby and campaign in ways similar to true unions, but which lack their mandatory dues collection and collective-bargaining power). But 26 states require even non-members of these unions to pay dues anyway, even though some of them object to the kind of lobbying and electioneering the unions engage in. And this lawsuit challenges the entire dues-collection scheme, not just the portion of money that is spent on these political activities. Collective bargaining itself, the plaintiffs contend, is a political activity because work conditions such as class size and teacher qualifications are public-policy questions settled through the political process.

I can see a couple of reasons why this case could be of widespread interest.

First, one of the (current) leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination is Scott Walker, who as Wisconsin's governor is perhaps best known for his tangles with public-sector unions. Mandatory dues collection was part of that fight, and earlier this year he signed a bill ending that practice for private-sector unions as well. So the issue could be prominent in the 2016 election, particularly if Walker does become the Republican nominee. If the court strikes down mandatory dues collection -- and recent cases suggest it might -- it would also put a crimp on one part of the union-money behemoth that helps bankroll Democratic candidates.

Second, one of the main ways in which teachers unions engage in the political process is to fight education reforms. We see this in Georgia, where -- even though (to repeat myself) groups like the Georgia Association of Educators and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators are not true unions -- the teachers associations are given a good bit of deference by lawmakers because the groups have money and are presumed to have the backing of many teachers, who are also voters. But the Georgia groups' pull is not as great as that of their more moneyed counterparts in other states. A blow to those other states' unions could be a boon to education reform in those places, which could have a spillover effect here. The same goes for efforts to fix other examples of brokenness in the public sector, in those places where unions spend dues money to fight such efforts.

Stay tuned.