Greg Hartnett: One year after Janus, Pa. laws behind times | TribLIVE.com
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Greg Hartnett: One year after Janus, Pa. laws behind times

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Greg Hartnett is a teacher in the Homer-Center School District.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that public sector employees like me, who are not union members, don’t have to pay union fees as a condition of employment. For decades, teacher contracts have included union fee provisions that force even nonmember employees to fund a union or lose our jobs — regardless of whether we agree with the union’s positions. Because of the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, those union fee provisions are unconstitutional.

The ruling was of particular interest to me, because in 2017 I, too, filed a lawsuit seeking relief from this unconstitutional practice. During my 20 years as a public-school teacher, I was compelled to send a portion of each paycheck to the teachers union, even though I did not agree with how the union leaders represented me during various negotiations. They blatantly ignored my opinions and worked to maintain their own power.

While I was able to resign my union membership, I was still required to pay a union fee for representation — representation I did not ask for, want or need. In my lawsuit, I joined with three other Pennsylvania teachers to challenge these forced union fees.

As my case waited in a lower court, the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus answered the question we were asking: Can teachers — or any public sector employee — be compelled to fund union activities, many of which are political in nature? The answer was simple: No. Doing so violates employees’ guaranteed rights to free speech and association.

Despite the court’s ruling, many of my colleagues remain unaware of their freedom to choose. Most haven’t heard of the Janus ruling, and union leaders aren’t telling them about it. The Janus ruling empowered workers, so many union leaders are keeping their lips sealed tight regarding the decision. As a result, many teachers continue to fund union activities they disagree with, unaware they have another choice.

To make matters even more confusing, Pennsylvania state law still authorizes fair share fees for public sector employee contracts. While Janus should apply to Pennsylvania law — many union officials have publicly conceded as much — the Supreme Court’s decision did not specifically analyze Pennsylvania law.

That means any teacher trying to understand their rights would soon encounter a valid state law and, in many cases, a contract with their employer requiring that nonmembers pay fees. In fact, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and some of their locals are continuing to include fair-share provisions for nonunion members in some of their new contracts right now — after Janus. As absurd as it sounds, they are completely ignoring the Supreme Court’s ruling and are knowingly negotiating for unconstitutional provisions in employment contracts.

This is why my own case, Hartnett v. PSEA, is still relevant. That is why we are now appealing to the United States 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

My case is about bringing the Janus ruling to Pennsylvania and affirming public sector employees’ rights at the state level. Specifically, we are asking the courts to declare state fair share laws unconstitutional and block teachers unions from including it in future contracts. While one court has ruled that this is unnecessary in light of the Janus decision, the facts, as noted above, prove that it is. And a recent court ruling in California indicates there are legal grounds for my continued appeal.

I take great pride in my work as a teacher to thousands of Pennsylvania students. It’s an honor to have the confidence of both parents and administrators. It’s been a year since the Janus decision, and in Pennsylvania we are still fighting for recognition of our rights — it’s time for Pennsylvania to catch up.

Greg Hartnett is a teacher in the Homer-Center School District in Indiana County.

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