The Knox County Education Association, which represents Knox County Schools teachers, has joined with the Tennessee Education Association and two other local teachers' associations in suing the state over a law that will make it more difficult for them to collect dues from members.
Because Tennessee is a right-to-work state, no teachers can be compelled to join unions or pay union dues. But under previous state law, those who did join could have their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks by the local school system and remitted to the local association.
But in a bill promoted by Gov. Bill Lee's administration, the state Legislature this year made that arrangement illegal. Starting July 1, districts will no longer be allowed to collect and remit those dues, and teachers will have to make the payments themselves.
To help secure passage of the provision, Lee's administration joined it to a separate measure to raise teacher starting salaries across the state to a minimum of $50,000 over the next four years. In committee hearings, even some Republican legislators questioned combining the two issues.
But the bill passed, and the lawsuit filed Monday alleges that it is unconstitutional on multiple counts. The Tennessee state constitution forbids bills that combine unrelated items: "No bill shall become law which embraces more than one subject, that subject to be expressed in the title." Another section bars any laws "impairing the obligation of contracts," as does a similar clause in the U.S. Constitution.
The suit argues that the restriction violates memorandums of understanding between local teachers' associations and school systems, as well as agreements between members and their local unions.
It also alleges significant damages in added expenses to the associations and their members in making alternative arrangements for dues collection. TEA said that it has invested in software to make it easier for teachers to pay their dues directly, but it costs money and labor to operate.
At the same time, it says the change will not save local districts any money or effort because the payment systems are set up for automatic deduction and remittance. The suit notes that fiscal notes on the legislation estimated no positive impact or savings for local districts.
“Sliding a payroll dues deduction ban in a bill to raise the minimum pay was a cynical attack on Tennessee teachers. The ban was mean-spirited, and the way it passed was unconstitutional,” Tennessee Education Association President Tanya Coats said in a statement. (Coats is also a former president of KCEA.) She added, “We filed this suit to protect the rights of our members and highlight the missteps made by the administration when they pushed this attack on teachers.”
The suit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, is careful to separate out the dues issue from the salary increases in the bill, saying it is challenging only the former. It argues that under the state's severability statute, the raises would stand even if the dues restriction was struck down.