In contract negotiations between the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Federation (the local AFT affiliate), the union asserted a Constitutional right under the First Amendment to force the school district to act as bill collector for union dues. Here’s what union negotiator Jed Palmer had to say on May 31, after reciting the entire First Amendment…
Palmer: “You are clearly trying to silence the voice that 70% of us teachers are part of. It is clear violation. It has been litigated extensively in the state of Wisconsin recently. I am very concerned that you willingly run this district into that kind of situation, where we have seen the state of Wisconsin ripped apart, and that you are willingly – recognize – to the detriment of the teachers, to the detriment of the students, to the detriment of this district, that you are willingly violating the speech of the people that choose to work, to do what is best for the kids of this district.”
School District Negotiator: “So you’re telling me that you have a Constitutional right to have your dues collected by the district, and to be sent back out by the district? I guess I don’t understand that. You have a Constitutional right to belong to the union if you want to, and we certainly don’t want to interfere with that at all. … I don’t think you have a Constitutional right to have your dues collected by the district.”
Palmer: “You established that right when you made the agreement with other unions that may or may not disagree with some of the policies. You established that right when you agreed to do that for one, you agreed to do it for all, without discriminatory practices.
This would seem to be ridiculous on the face of it. The idea that simply failing to act as dues collector amounts to squelching free speech is more or less like saying that Denver’s refusal to collect my synagogue dues amounts to a free exercise violation. It would seem ridiculous, if a federal judge in Wisconsin hadn’t just struck down that portion of the new law up there that does just that. His reasoning was that the state continued to collect dues for the fire and police unions, and that there was no rational basis for distinguishing between the two groups, except perhaps that the fire and police unions had supported the current administration’s election.
Thus the reason for Palmer’s claim that this issue had been “extensively litigated in Wisconsin,” and a later specific line of questioning trying to establish the same facts in Douglas County. Unfortunately for the union, the School Board showed that dues money had been used in campaigns, and also said that since each contract was negotiated separately, if they found evidence of similar activity on the part of, say, the bus drivers, they’d try to negotiate the same disengagement from them.
Since this is a negotiation, and not legislation, the union was basically arguing that they didn’t have the power to bargain away their members’ First Amendment rights, and claimed that this was an issue of working conditions. There are, of course, all sorts of restrictions on teachers’ First Amendment rights when they’re working, policies against excessive politicking in the classroom, for instance. They were trying to find legal backup for their position, claiming that not only was the district wrong, but that the negotiators couldn’t concede the point even if they wanted to. Whether this is setting the stage for a strike or a lawsuit remains to be seen.
For more on the negotiations, and more raw video of the proceedings, see View From a Height. Negotiations concluded on June 8, and we’ll have a status update and a follow-up post tomorrow.