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Contracts show fight for teachers’ rights isn’t over

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This op-ed was published on TribLive.com on Dec. 21, 2019.

Would you sign a contract you know is unconstitutional? How about one that violates teachers’ rights of free speech and free association? My guess is you wouldn’t. And that you’d be outraged if someone did.

Well, that someone is in your backyard. More than 20 Pennsylvania school districts — including New Kensington-Arnold, Penn Hills, Steel Valley and Jeannette City — recently enacted new contracts that ignore a Supreme Court ruling and violate the U.S. Constitution.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that government workers, including teachers, police, municipal employees and others, could no longer be forced to pay a union as a condition of employment. Because unions engage in political activity, the court said, mandatory “fair share” fees imposed on non-union members violate their First Amendment rights.

There’s no disputing it: As of June 27, 2018, “fair share” fees are unconstitutional in the public sector. So why do new teacher contracts in New Kensington-Arnold, Penn Hills, Steel Valley and Jeannette City — signed in September, November and December 2018 and July 2019, respectively — still include these fees?

As a former public school teacher , I was shocked when I read through these contracts and realized local leaders and teachers’ union officials are acting as through Supreme Court decisions and the Constitution are take-it-or-leave-it suggestions, rather than the law of the land.

Here’s why this happened. The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) — that’s the statewide teachers union — wants to keep fee language in contracts in case the Janus ruling is overturned by some future Supreme Court.

How do I know? It’s written in black and white: Bermudian Springs School District in Adams County passed a new contract in May, which explicitly outlines the tactic, saying, “Should the Janus decision be overturned (fair share fees) will apply.”

Making matters worse, teachers often don’t know their union membership options in general. And a national Teacher Freedom survey from early summer showed that more than three in four teachers hadn’t even heard of the Janus decision. So, many educators will read the unconstitutional language in new contracts and wrongly assume that there’s no point in resigning from their union, since they’ll have to pay a fee anyway.

While the Janus decision was a major victory for workers’ rights, the fact that state teachers union leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to the law in new teacher contracts shows the battle over union fees is far from over.

Thankfully, there are solutions pending in both the courtroom and the Legislature.

Legislation called the Employee Rights Notification Act (House Bill 765) would make sure new public workers and nonunion members are notified about their right to do their jobs without paying a union. The bill would also align Pennsylvania law with the Janus decision by removing the now-unconstitutional Fair Share Fee Law from the state’s books. House lawmakers advanced this bill earlier this year but haven’t yet brought it to a full vote.

In the courtroom, a lawsuit filed by four Pennsylvania teachers in 2017, Hartnett v. PSEA, could result in a ruling that strikes down the Fair Share Fee Law. This case is now before U.S. Third Circuit Court.

And let’s not forget about local school boards. It’s an embarrassment that some have given in to PSEA’s pressure tactics and enacted contracts known to be unconstitutional. You wouldn’t sign your name on that document, and neither should they.

We can hope PSEA leaders adhere to the Janus ruling because it’s the right thing to do. But we should demand that public officials at all levels follow the law. After all, it’s their job.

Keith Williams is the director of outreach for Pennsylvania at Americans for Fair Treatment (americansforfairtreatment.org).

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