A California educator who was once laid off shortly after receiving her school’s Teacher of the Year Award is now at the center of a court case that could challenge one the state’s most powerful unions.
Bhavini Bhakta never intended to become an activist, but after being laid off six times in the first eight years of her career as an elementary school teacher in the Pasadena suburbs, she decided to get involved in the education reform movement. She focused first on challenging seniority-based layoffs, which in turn led her into conflict with the California Teachers Association. Now she is a plaintiff in Bain v. CTA, a case which challenges the dues structure of unions as a violation of the First Amendment. The suit seeks to restore voting rights on union matters to agency fee payers, who pay full dues for representational activities but opt out of paying for lobbying and political activities.
“The state union forcibly takes our money and uses it to misrepresent us. They’re not serving the teachers on the ground,” she said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. “They’re using my money for their own purposes.”
Bhakta is no longer a member of the CTA after taking a job as assistant principal at Arcadia High School. She briefly became an agency fee payer to protest the state chapter’s political lobbying only to find that that choice also prevented her from weighing in on local matters. She returned to paying full dues in order to get her vote back.
“It [the CTA] is political without any kind of representation for its membership … on all fronts I was silenced as a teacher,” she said.
The CTA, which did not return request for comment, represents 325,000 educators. The union has accused the plaintiffs in Bain of being funded by “corporate interests.” CTA has argued that the case infringes on the “unions’ first amendment right to freedom of association through self-governance.”
“What the Bain plaintiffs were asking for would have represented a significant and unprecedented violation of teachers’ First Amendment rights to democratically associate in a labor union,” the union said in a 2015 press release.
Bhakta does not consider herself anti-union and said she has remained on good terms with her local union representatives even as she clashed with the state chapter while advocating for reforms in Sacramento.
“I believe that organized labor is good at the local level because it is functional and they listen to their members,” she said.
Bain v. CTA is the second major court challenge that the union has faced in recent years. In 2014, a group of teachers filed suit seeking to overturn the 1977 Abood precedent that allowed government agencies to mandate union membership as a condition of employment. The case, Friedrichs v. CTA, reached the Supreme Court where lawyers for the teachers argued that public sector unions are political organizations because they negotiate for taxpayer dollars. The Court reached a 4-4 deadlock following the death of Antonin Scalia. Several cases challenging Abood have since been filed to the Supreme Court, as labor watchdogs hope that newly-confirmed Justice Neal Gorsuch will break the tie in their favor.
Bhakta said she was “disappointed” by the Friedrichs decision, but regrets the nature of labor disputes in education even more.
“It’s a shame that we have to go a legal [route] when this could just be solved by them talking to their members,” she said.
In 2015, a U.S. district court judge dismissed Bain, ruling in favor of the unions. The case is now pending in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.