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Federal court sides with Minnesota teachers union, says non-members aren’t entitled to refunds

Union leaders hailed this week's appeals court ruling as a win for organized labor and said it reaffirmed their use of fair-share fees in the past.

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Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, hailed an appeals court's ruling this week as a win for organized labor.
Alex Kormann / Star Tribune / TNS
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota teachers aren't entitled to a refund of so-called "fair-share" fees they paid to unions in the years leading up to a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring those fees unconstitutional.

That was an appeals court's ruling this week in a federal lawsuit that is part of a broader national effort to force public-sector employee unions to retroactively refund millions to nonmembers. Minnesota unions had for decades collected those fees to pay for collective bargaining efforts.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, and a trio of public school districts in its ruling.

A panel agreed that the statewide union, along with three local unions, followed the law in the four decades leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case known as Janus vs. AFSCME.

Union leaders hailed this week's appeals court ruling as a win for organized labor and said it reaffirmed their use of fair-share fees in the past. Until the Janus case overturned a prior court decision, public employee unions could charge such fees of nonunion members who benefitted from their collective bargaining activities.

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"The national, coordinated legal strategy to destroy unions of public sector workers for speaking up for their members and their communities has suffered another loss," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said.

Opponents registered their disappointment with the decision, arguing educators were unfairly forced to bankroll union activities they disagreed with.

"Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that such deductions violated public employees' First Amendment rights, the union gets to keep these dollars," said Catrin Wigfall, director of the advocacy group Educated Teachers MN and a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.

The organization launched an effort to court educators in the wake of the 2018 Janus ruling, steering teachers toward vendors for liability insurance they'd lose if they declined to join a union.

Educated Teachers organizers say educators aligned with their position disagree with their local union's strong backing of Democratic candidates and political organizing — activities that fair share fees were barred from financing.

Before the Janus decision, Education Minnesota collected fair-share fees from nearly 5,700 nonunion members, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in 2020.

That year, a federal judge declined to certify the case as a class-action suit, saying the three Minnesota educators suing their unions for refunds of fair-share fees — Linda Hoekman of the Anoka-Hennepin district, Mary Buros of the Shakopee district and Paul Hanson of the Centennial district — weren't doing so for similar enough reasons.

Both Specht, the Education Minnesota president, and Wigfall with Educated Teachers said the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both sides said they would be prepared for an additional legal fight if that happens.

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