As a public school teacher, hundreds of parents entrust me to help their children achieve their potential. Thousands of taxpayers also rely on me to use their resources for the betterment of the next generation.
Because of these responsibilities, I approach each school day focused on achieving the most with what I’ve been given—and I’m grateful that my life’s work has a lasting impact.
But despite the trust given to me during my 19 years of teaching, there’s one major decision that’s been unjustly taken out of my hands: I must either give a teachers’ union a cut of my paycheck or lose my job.
For decades, most Pennsylvania teachers and other government workers have been coerced into funding unions even if they disagree with the organizations’ stances. But in February, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case, Janus v. AFSCME, that could finally restore my rights and begin to fix a rigged system stacked in favor of government unions and against individuals.
I witnessed how out of touch many union leaders have become during teacher contract negotiations in Indiana County’s Homer-Center School District, where I teach. To avoid potential teacher layoffs or a community-harming tax increase, I asked the union to drop its demand for salary increases. The union ignored me, adhering to bargaining tactics established decades ago that put union leaders’ priorities first and union members’ wishes and the community’s well-being last.
As negotiations dragged on, I learned that union leaders who once secured individual workers’ rights now violate them to maintain one-size-fits-all contracts that secure their power. I learned that even if union leaders treat my opinion as worthless, the law still entitles them to a portion of my salary every year. Most of all, I learned that to keep teaching, I had to give up my constitutional rights of free speech and free association.
That’s why I, along with three other Pennsylvania teachers, filed a federal lawsuit last year seeking to end compulsory union fees as a condition of public sector employment.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, that unions can force us to pay a fee to support collective bargaining activity even though we aren’t union members. Our lawsuit argues that collective bargaining—which is what unions do when they negotiate wages and work conditions—is by nature political, and being forced to pay for it violates our First Amendment rights.
Here's how: Every dollar devoted to government union contracts is a dollar taken from other government functions like road construction, bridge maintenance, municipal services, or public safety. Spending cuts must be made, or taxes must be raised to compensate.
In short, deciding how to spend public money and the trade-offs of those decisions are political choices. But we have to fund the union’s political choices even if they violate our own beliefs.
No one should have to support political activity they disagree with.
Though our lawsuit has been stayed, we could still achieve our goal via a similar case, Janus v. AFSCME, now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mark Janus, the plaintiff in this important case, is a child-support specialist working for Illinois state government. Like me, he’s been forced to pay a union even though he’s not a member. Janus has fought against this coercion and wants the Supreme Court to declare forced union fees unconstitutional in the public sector.
The potential impact of Janus’ case extends far beyond Pennsylvania. Twenty-one other states also require nonmember union fees from government workers. That’s over 5 million workers across the nation who could regain their constitutional right to choose what political positions they fund.
What can we expect if the Supreme Court rules in Janus’ favor and frees public employees from this coercive system?
Government unions will still exist, collectively bargain, and represent their members. Public employees who value union services will still join and pay union dues.
And teachers like me, who are trusted with so much, will finally be trusted with the choice of whether or not to fund a union.
Greg Hartnett teaches in Homer-Center School District, located in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. This article was reprinted with permission from the Fairness Center. It first appeared in PennLive.com and the York Dispatch.