Teachers who object to paying union fees on religious grounds are too political, some union leaders in Pennsylvania argue in a new twist on long-standing complaints about organized labor’s involvement in elective politics.  

But at least two of those teachers, who just had their day in court to put state labor laws under scrutiny, see more than a little irony at work in the union complaints. 

Lawyers for Jane Ladley, who taught in public schools for 25 years before retiring in 2014 from Avon Grove School District in Chester County, argued her case Dec. 11 before the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

Joining Ladley in suing the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers union, was Chris Meier, a history and economics teacher at Penn Manor High School in Lancaster County for the past 10 years. 

Neither teacher is a member of PSEA, but the union secured contractual agreements with their respective school districts that require nonmembers such as Ladley and Meier to pay what the union calls “fair share fees.” 

This is one of about 80 lawsuits filed across the nation by public employees against labor unions to recover union fees, terminate union membership, halt dues deduction, or challenge exclusive representation, according to the Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Foundation. 

Pennsylvania law permits teachers such as Ladley and Meier, who object on religious grounds to paying the mandatory union fees and what they fund, to steer money from their paychecks to the charity of their choice rather than the teachers union. 

But there’s a catch, as David Osborne, an attorney with the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm based in Harrisburg, explained in an interview.

“For some time, the law has allowed religious objectors to send money to a charity of their choice that’s equal to the amount that would otherwise be sent to the union,” Osborne told The Daily Signal. “But, at the same time, the charity has to be agreed upon between the nonmember and the union.”

What State Law Does

The way the law works, money is withheld from a public employee’s check and deposited into a separate account while the PSEA, or other union, processes the employee’s selection of a charity. In the case of Ladley and Meier, the PSEA objected to their choices. 

Ladley had settled on a scholarship fund for high school seniors who want to study the U.S. Constitution, but the union objected. She then selected the Constitutional Organization of Liberty, which supplies educational information highlighting American history and the ideals of the Constitution.

The teachers union didn’t respond to Ladley’s proposed alternative, according to a press release from the Fairness Center.

“They are telling me which groups I have to choose,” Ladley is quoted as saying. “It’s a wrong that needs to be righted. I’m doing this on principle and for the other teachers coming up through the ranks, so that they can have these options available to them.”

As his charity, Meier selected the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a nonprofit based in Virginia that provides legal assistance to public employees who seek to free themselves from union membership.

“I want freedom of choice—to be able to donate to the charity I choose,” Meier said in a statement released by the Fairness Center.

So far, that choice has not materialized. 

“I want freedom of choice,” history teacher Chris Meier says. (Photo courtesy of The Fairness Center)

“The PSEA refused Chris’s selection on the basis that the [National Right to Work Legal Defense] Foundation provided legal representation to teachers who sued the PSEA,” the Fairness Center said of Meier’s case.

According to the teachers union, it said, allowing Meier to help fund the foundation “would be a ‘conflict of interest’” for the union.

Union’s Giving to Politicians

Osborne, the Fairness Center attorney, also said he was unimpressed with the union’s objections to the selected charity of the other teacher, Ladley.

“The PSEA said it would not agree to the selected charities because the union thought they were too political,” Osborne said. “Ms. Ladley thought that was laughable because the PSEA is one of the most political organizations in the whole state.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association has more than 181,000 members, including teachers and other education professionals, making it the largest public employee union in the state. 

In 2018, the union contributed more than $1.5 million to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, during his successful reelection race. Campaign records also show Wolf was the top recipient of the union’s contributions from 2010 to 2016, receiving $865,000. 

In the past quarter-century, the union has contributed more than $14 million to Pennsylvania Democrats and a little more than $3 million to Republicans, campaign records show.  

The Fairness Center represents the plaintiffs in the Ladley case and in a related case, Hartnett v. PSEA.

In the second case, teachers who have chosen not to become union members object to the collection of “fair share fees” as a violation of their First Amendment freedoms. Greg Hartnett, a teacher in the Homer Center School District, is the lead plaintiff.

Related: 1 Year after Union Ruling, Pennsylvania Law Still Allows for Unconstitutional Fees

The Daily Signal asked media relations officials of the Pennsylvania State Education Association for comment on the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the Ladley and Hartnett cases. 

The Daily Signal also asked the teachers union whether it had concerns that that “fair share fee” requirements included in its contracts are illegal in light of the Supreme Court ruling. 

The union had not responded at publication time. 

Role of the Supreme Court

The Fairness Center has partnered with the National Right to Work Foundation to represent Hartnett and the other schoolteachers in the second case.

“The Hartnett and Ladley cases have become very similar, even though they held different facts at the outset,” Osborne said.

That’s because the Supreme Court struck down mandatory union dues and fees for public sector workers in deciding the case of Janus v. AFSCME in June 2018.

“What unified the two cases was the Janus decision,” Osborne said. “Janus could change everything. If the court applies Janus and rules to invalidate that part of Pennsylvania labor law that makes fair share fees possible, then that settles both cases.”

Osborne also said he sees potential for the Ladley and Hartnett cases to reverberate across state lines. 

“These cases could have an impact in other states, many of which still have agency fee statues on the books,” the teachers’ lawyer said. 

The funds for the teachers in the Ladley case were initially held in an escrow account while the Janus case was pending before the Supreme Court. But the union refunded the money after the high court decided Janus.

“The union tried to moot this case to avoid a ruling on the merits,” Osborne said, adding:

Fortunately, the court understood the argument we were making and that Pennsylvania law has not been addressed on this point. The PSEA is arguing that the court doesn’t need to rule because the union claims it has already done everything that is required. But the problem is that PSEA’s promises are self-serving and they could change their mind anytime. There’s still a collective bargaining agreement with fair share fees, and the PSEA has done nothing to change this.

Pushing Back

Charles Mitchell, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, has followed both cases. In a press release, Mitchell said the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling is beginning to arouse government workers who have been denied their free speech rights.

“More workers are realizing that their union’s leadership is acting for themselves rather than for workers,” Mitchell said. “Our friends and neighbors in public service shouldn’t have to sue to have the same rights as you and I.”

The Fairness Center’s lawsuits against the teachers union in Pennsylvania figure into a larger national picture, according to a new report from the Commonwealth Foundation detailing the legislative and legal response to Janus across the country. 

In 2019, lawmakers introduced more than 100 Janus-related bills at the state level, the report says. 

“In many states, union leaders are using their considerable lobbying resources to slow legislation that would enforce Janus and to pass union-friendly bills,” Mitchell says in the report. 

But Pennsylvania is among the states pushing back from the other direction with legislation that would bring state labor laws into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling, the report notes. 

The report says Pennsylvania and California account for nearly half of the roughly 80 lawsuits filed by public employees against labor unions to recover union fees, terminate union membership, halt dues deduction, or challenge exclusive representation.