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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alabama cancels Thrasherlike anti worker bill

By Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- A federal judge issued a temporary injunction this afternoon halting a new state law that could potentially cripple a statewide teachers' organization.

U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith issued the injunction against a law passed by the Alabama Legislature in December that bans school employees from having their Alabama Education Association membership dues directly deducted from their paychecks. The law was to go into effect on Sunday.

Dr. Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of AEA, said the organization had been hoping for a ruling on the injunction before the law goes into effect.

"Once the law goes into effect, we will lose January dues, which are collected in February," Hubbert said shortly before the ruling was filed. "We may also lose February dues, collected in March. A couple of months' worth of loss makes it hard to operate." Hubbert could not be reached immediately after the filing.

Rex Cheatham, AEA Uniserv director for the Huntsville district, said he was "ecstatic" about the ruling. "We are so happy for all the teachers and principals and everyone affected by the ruling," Cheatham said.

Attorneys for the defendants were not immediately available for comment this evening.

Smith filed his ruling just before 5 p.m. In it, he stated that AEA lawyers had "demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on their claim" that the new law violates the organization's rights to free speech and equal protection as granted under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit filed Feb. 25 also claimed that the ban was passed by the new Republican-led Legislature as retaliation for AEA's historic support of Democratic candidates.

All defendants in the suit, except for Gov. Robert Bentley, are enjoined from implementing the new law, Smith writes in his order. As such, they must honor employees' requests for payroll deductions to the AEA.

The order does not apply to Bentley because there are issues over whether the court has jurisdiction over the AEA's claims against Bentley, Smith writes.

Besides Bentley, the defendants in the case are state School Superintendent Joe Morton, state Finance Director David Perry, postsecondary Chancellor Freida Hill, State Comptroller Thomas White Jr. and the district attorneys of Lee and Madison counties.

Madison County schools seeking dismissal

The Madison, Huntsville and Madison County school boards are also named as defendants, although attorney J.R. Brooks, who is representing all three, filed a motion earlier today seeking to have them removed from the suit.

Brooks' motion argues, in part, that, because Bentley and Morton control implementation of the law with respect to public school employees, there is no relief to be granted against the local school boards.

Brooks said today that his clients had nothing to do with the passage of the new statute.

"We don't think we're necessary parties here," Brooks said. "There's no more reason for us to be in the lawsuit than the other 129 school boards that are not in it."

Though the lawsuit was filed in Huntsville, it has implications for all of Alabama's 132 school systems.

The new law changes the longtime practice that allowed government employees, including those working in local school systems, to automatically have membership dues, voluntary contributions, insurance premiums and other payments deducted from their paychecks.

As state law now reads, no government employee can arrange for automatic deduction for dues to "membership organizations that use funds for political activities."

Hubbert said that the law also stops the AEA from doing work that they do not consider to be "political."

"We can't do any kind of polling, and there are school boards in the middle right now of tax referendums," Hubbert said. "We're often asked by them to do polling. We wouldn't be able to do that (under the new law)."

Lawyers for AEA argued during a hearing in Smith's courtroom this week that the new law threatens to significantly reduce the organization's funding.

Hubbert, the only witness called by either side, testified that only 83 percent of AEA's 105,000 members had signed up to have their dues collected through a bank draft.

If AEA lost the remaining 17 percent, it could add up to $2.4 million in lost dues each year, Hubbert testified.

The law could also cost AEA $1.4 million for April alone, because AEA will not be ready for the switch to bank draft until May.

Hubbert said that AEA had already spent $500,000 and hired 150 recruiters since December to get more members over to payment through a bank draft. Between 8,000 and 10,000 members do not have bank accounts, though.

Recruiters have also been barred from two-year campuses.

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