Indiana, PA - Indiana County

HOMER-CENTER: Teacher joins lawsuit over paying union dues

by on January 20, 2017 10:57 AM
Homer City, PA

HARRISBURG — A teacher at the Homer-Center School District and three other Pennsylvania educators this week filed a federal lawsuit challenging the laws that allow unions to collect fees from nonmembers who benefit from union activities.

Attorneys for the National Right to Work Foundation and the Fairness Center are representing the teachers’ bid to end compulsory union fees as a condition of public sector employment.

Homer-Center art teacher Greg Hartnett and the others say they are among 62 percent of American teachers who oppose mandatory union fees, a figure shown in a 2015 poll by Education Next.

The suit was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

“Teaching is my calling, but I fundamentally disagree with many teachers’ union stances on personnel and political issues,” Hartnett said in a news release. “Even though union leaders violate my beliefs, I must either give them a cut of my paycheck or lose my job. That’s coercion. That’s immoral. I hope this lawsuit helps the court recognize it’s also unconstitutional.”

Mandatory union fees is a recurrent issue in the courts. Lawyers expect the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where a similar challenge ended last year in a 4 to 4 vote.

The court has sat with a vacant seat since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

Plaintiffs in the last case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, also sought to end compulsory union fees for teachers. The divided court’s tie effectively allowed union policies forcing teachers in Pennsylvania and many other states to pay unions as a condition of employment.

“Teachers should not have to give up their constitutional rights to teach our kids,” said Nathan McGrath, vice president and chief litigation counsel for the Fairness Center. “This lawsuit is designed to clearly and cleanly address the core issue that was left undecided in the Friedrichs case. We intend to provide the Supreme Court with another opportunity to end more than 40 years of union coercion.”

The new suit names the Pennsylvania State Education Association as the main defendant, and Homer-Center Education Association, Homer-Center School District, superintendent Charles Koren, and the unions and administrators of the Ellwood City and Twin Valley school districts as co-defendants.

Koren declined to comment Thursday. He said that he and the district had not yet seen the lawsuit.

The head of the state teachers union called the suit another attempt to rewrite the law and use it as a political attack on unions and the people they represent.

“A fair share fee is a fee for services unions are legally required to provide nonmembers; nothing more, nothing less,” said Jerry Oleksiak, president of PSEA. “We recognize that obligation, and we are diligent in providing those services. It’s only fair in any walk of life to pay a fee for benefits you receive — and for benefits that unions like PSEA have no choice but to provide to nonmembers.

“This lawsuit is another attempt to undermine this basic fairness and make it harder for teachers, nurses, and other workers to do their jobs.

“The Fairness Center is an anti-union organization that is funding and organizing this lawsuit. It was created to intimidate and harass unions and working people, and to try to subvert one of the principal reasons that unions exist: to collectively stand up for working people and make sure they have a voice.”

According to PSEA, several other challenges to fair-share laws have been filed in other states before the California case that went unresolved at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“My choices have been taken away by a legal system stacked in favor of unions and against individual teachers,” Hartnett said. “If I’m trusted to teach the next generation, I should be trusted to make my own decisions with my own money. That’s just common sense.”

NOTE: This story edited at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 20 to correct the status of past cases.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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