California School Fiscal Services
|Posted on February 3, 2016 at 5:45 AM|
FEBRUARY 01, 2016
by Tom Chorneau
(Calif.) For decades they have cast an imposing political shadow over the Capitol – dictating terms on budget deals, elevating supporters and isolating opponents while exercising a de facto veto power over many, if not most, legislative offerings.
Deserved or not, the California Teachers Association has a reputation as kingmaker in Sacramento – a status so solid that only a handful of other stakeholder groups in the country can match. But later this spring, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a life-threatening blow to them – as well as to all other public employee unions – by trimming their ability to raise money.
If so, there is broad consensus that party politics in the U.S. will be fundamentally changed and the labor movement severely wounded.
There’s less consensus, however, on the ruling’s impact in Sacramento and on the California political landscape.
“I’m not discounting how important this decision will be – it is a direct assault on public employee unions and the impact will be significant,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
“Money is important to CTA and the CFT (California Federation of Teachers) but giving and spending money is not all that they do,” he explained. “They also do a lot of organizing, have a tremendously loyal membership and will still have the ability to affect close elections in state elections and also in settings that you might not always notice, such as school boards and some Assembly races. It’s not as if their capacity to be politically active will evaporate.”
At issue in Friedrichs v. CTA is a ruling made in the 1970s that upheld as constitutional state laws requiring government employees represented by a labor union to pay their share of collective bargaining activities whether they are members or not. California and 22 other states have such laws on the books and a reversal by the court would mean those unions wouldn’t be able to collect hundreds of millions of dollars, likely diminishing their overall effectiveness.
The plaintiffs have challenged the mandate on First Amendment grounds saying their dues help support a union that pushes a political agenda they do not agree with. Hostile questioning of CTA’s attorneys by the high court’s conservative majority at a hearing last month suggests that the justices will rule against the union when the opinions are made public probably in June.
CTA officials have been characteristically circumspect in most of their public statements. They have expressed hope that the court will maintain the status quo, but have also criticized the suit as “politically inspired” and a vehicle of “corporate interests.”
In a November seminar held in Sacramento, Teri Holoman, CTA’s political action manager, gave perhaps the most in-depth response when she insisted the ruling wouldn’t have as substantial an impact as many believe. She argued that the union leadership pays a lot of attention to the grass roots.
“CTA is an incredibly democratic organization,” she said. “In terms of how it functions, decisions they make, political campaigns they get involved with and candidates they back.”
As a result, she argued, even if the court takes away the mandated dues enough teachers will continue to contribute voluntarily allowing the union to carry on largely without missing a step.
That remains to be seen, said Jack Pitney, a veteran political observer and a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
“I think at first, everyone will regard this as a big setback for CTA and public employee unions in general,” he said. “The question becomes whether they can continue to collect the fees in the absence of the requirement; perhaps they can. But that’s an open question.”
Because of how ingrained the teachers have become with the Legislature’s Democratic majority, no one expects change to come quickly. Virtually everyone in statewide office today owes some sense of loyalty to CTA – from Gov. Jerry Brown on down – and in many cases the bond is absolute.
With a membership of close to 325,000 – each earning a salary well above statewide average – the CTA is uniquely positioned to raise and spend substantial amounts when needed.
The group has been the single biggest special-interest donor to California campaigns during the past five election cycles, contributing more than $118 million. They have often served as the counter balance to wealthy and big corporate fundraisers – never more so than in the 2005 special election when they helped match the formidable campaign funds raised by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a race that eventually cost a stunning $260 million.
The teachers union has also maintained a prominent role in the day-to-day activities at the Legislature. Weighing in on all education bills, the CTA has also traditionally been prominent in the discussion on almost every spending bill, especially the state budget. The organization routinely spends more than $3 million on lobbying during a two-year legislative session, ranking them among the top 10 influencers statewide.
If Friedrichs goes against the unions, Pitney said the notion that CTA won’t have a fall-off in revenue is folly.
“Much of their power derives from money,” he said. “Of course, they have people power and the ruling might not have as much impact there but then they may not be able to afford to do the phone banks and other activities.”
Still, some say CTA’s reputation as a power-broker is overblown.
“If CTA were so powerful we wouldn’t have dropped from fifth in per-pupil spending to 50th,” said Delaine Eastin, a former Democratic lawmaker and two-term state schools chief who generally had the support of CTA whenever she ran.
Eastin said her experience is that even the most powerful entities in the Capitol struggle to get new ideas or programs passed but many are far more successful when it comes to stopping them. She said Friedrichs isn’t likely to change that for CTA.