In a case that will cheer education reformers, four Pennsylvania teachers today sued their unions, school districts and district officials for making union membership a condition of their employment.
“Teaching is my calling, but I fundamentally disagree with many teachers’ union stances on personnel and political issues,” said lead plaintiff Gregory J. Hartnett, an art teacher and father of five. “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.”
The suit – and the likely appointment of a reform-friendly Supreme Court justice under the incoming Trump Administration – immediately raised expectations that Hartnett v. Pennsylvania State Education Association will do for public education what last year’s Friedrichs case could not.
Plaintiffs in Friedrichs persuaded district and circuit courts in California to move that case quickly to the Supreme Court.
“If the Hartnett plaintiffs can do the same, it’s possible Hartnett could become the vehicle for the Supreme Court finally to rule in favor of worker freedom,” said Robert W. Loewen, a retired attorney, court watcher and board chairman of the California Policy Center. “That would give the new court the opportunity to overturn its ill-advised decision in Abood, which has prevailed since the 1970s.”
The Hartnett plaintiffs “do not want the state deciding for them which private organizations they must support and specifically do not want to be compelled by state actors to support labor organizations they have not voluntarily chosen to support and that they may, in fact, oppose,” the teachers assert in their filing.
Hartnett comes just months after the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked over Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Following a January 2016 Supreme Court hearing, Friedrichs appeared certain to unwind mandatory union membership for teachers on First Amendment grounds.
But Friedrichs was derailed by the death of Judge Antonin Scalia just weeks after that hearing. Scalia’s absence left the justices tied 4-4 on Friedrichs. That left standing a lower court’s ruling in favor of the California Teachers Association.
The failure of the Friedrichs case – and the apparently inevitable election of Hillary Clinton – seemed to kill hopes the Supreme Court would overturn Abood, and end union control of public education in the U.S.
Donald Trump’s November win, and the expectation that the new president will nominate a reform-minded Supreme Court appointment to replace Scalia, raised hopes for a new Friedrichs-style case.
Rebecca Friedrichs, the third-grade teacher from Orange County, California, was among the first to celebrate the announcement of Hartnett.
“I’m thrilled to hear school employees and teachers throughout the country are standing united for freedom from forced unionism,” she told the California Policy Center hours after the suit was filed. “Every American worker deserves to innovate and thrive on the job unencumbered by the politics and policies imposed upon them by union domination of our workplaces.
“It’s time for liberation,” she said. “Three cheers for the brave men and women bringing the issues to light.”
Will Swaim is president of California Policy Center.