Pa. teachers sue over the union fees they must pay

 School librarian Elizabeth “Bitsy” Galaska, 53, tells parents that hers “is not the library of 'shhhh … stamp, shhhh … stamp.' ”

What she’s telling the courts is that she no longer wants to be forced to pay union fees from the salary she earns as a librarian at the Robeson Elementary Center in Birdsboro, part  of the Twin Valley School District in Berks and Chester Counties. 

Galaska, of Boyertown, and three other Pennsylvania teachers, none of whom are union members, filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against their districts, the superintendents, and the union that represents the faculty, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, as well as its local branches, including the Twin Valley Education Association. 

Their suits, which will take years to resolve, have come days before Donald Trump's inauguration and a little less than two weeks after Kentucky passed “right-to-work” legislation, weakening union influence. 

Backed by the National Right to Work Foundation, the teachers were joined by state-employed pharmacists from California and school workers from New York who filed similar lawsuits Wednesday, in different federal circuits, saying their First Amendment rights are violated when they have to pay a portion of union dues – “fair share fees”  – when they disagree with union policies, representation, and politics.

“We are bringing this case to give [the U.S. Supreme Court] a clean, clear case - one issue, one question, which is whether it is constitutional to force these nonmember teachers to associate with the union and to pay the unions’ bills for representation they don’t even want,” said attorney Nathan J. McGrath, director of litigation for the Fairness Center in Harrisburg, which is representing the teachers along with foundation staff attorneys.

In Pennsylvania, public employees who choose not to be union members pay “fair share fees,” designed to cover unions' costs for bargaining and handling grievances. The fees do not go to political donations, although McGrath argues that the very fact that teachers are government employees makes the fees  inherently political.

McGrath said fair share fees are 74 percent of union dues.

“Here we go again,” Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said with a sigh. “This was not unexpected.”   

Bloomingdale said the teachers want “the good contracts, the good pensions, the health care, but they don’t want to pay for it. They think these things are going to miraculously happen without someone at the bargaining table pushing for them.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, a defendant, said: "This is another attempt to rewrite the law and use it as a political attack on unions and the people they represent." The union in Galaska's district, the Twin Valley Education Association, has 245 members and two nonmember fee payers. 

Similar cases have been heading toward the U.S. Supreme Court for years. Last year, it looked as if the court would finally set precedent in the case of teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, who didn’t want to pay union fees and sued the California Teachers Association.  

Court observers had expected the justices to rule 5-4 in favor of abolishing the fees, with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia among the five. But Scalia died in February.  In March, the court deadlocked with a 4-4 vote; the fees remained and unions breathed a sigh of relief.

Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said that politics influenced the push to file Wednesday's cases, adding them to a roster of four en route to federal appellate courts. “There’s no question that the next Supreme Court judge will be the swing vote,” he said. “You can look at the type of justice that Hillary would have picked versus the judges on Donald Trump’s list."

Semmens said Trump judges would likely be more sympathetic to plaintiffs, such as Galaska, who see paying union fees as a violation of First Amendment rights. 

“Having more cases in the pipeline makes the issue unavoidable,” he said.

Exactly, said Bloomingdale. “They are trying to throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. They want us spending money defending lawsuits,” instead of spending money advocating for better pay and conditions, he said. “It’s about weakening the labor movement.”

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