How my 8-year lawsuit helped to settle Pa. public employees rights
Originally published in the Lancaster LNP.
By Jane Ladley
This Labor Day feels different. For the first time in eight years, I will be celebrating with family and friends without also battling the state’s largest labor union in court.
Finally, my long journey through the legal system recently ended in a judgment relevant to thousands of public employees across Pennsylvania.
As a teacher, I believe I was called to help students become the best versions of themselves. And for 25 years, teaching truly felt like building the future one piece at a time.
But in my final year prior to retirement, the Pennsylvania State Education Association—a teachers union boasting nearly 180,000 members—pressured me to compromise my principles and support causes I did not believe in.
Backing down from a bully is not in my nature, nor would it have set a good example for my students. I wasn’t giving in without a fight.
Back in 2013, I declined to join the teachers’ union and pay union dues. I did not want any of my income going to the union, because the social and political causes it supported violated my religious beliefs.
But nonmembers like me were still required to pay so-called “fair share” fees to unions. A little-known state law, however, allowed me to become a religious objector and donate to a nonreligious charity instead of paying union fees.
Or so I thought.
I didn’t expect controversy when I chose to support a charity that encouraged high school and college-age students to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the U.S. Constitution. But that’s exactly what I got. The union rejected my choice, claiming it was “too political.” I selected a different charity, and the union rejected that one, too.
Ultimately, union officials wanted me to hand over my money to a charity that they hand-picked, not one that promoted my values.
I knew that this coercion was exactly what the Constitution and Bill of Rights were meant to prevent, so I sought legal help from the Fairness Center, a public interest law firm. Along with a Lancaster County teacher facing a similar situation, I sued the union in 2014.
While my lawsuit worked its way through Pennsylvania courts, the nation’s highest court issued a ruling that changed everything.
In 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that forcing public employees to pay a union as a condition of employment violated employees’ First Amendment rights.
I had filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiff, an Illinois public employee named Mark Janus, and was ecstatic at the outcome.
In 2018, Pennsylvania State Education Association officials finally acknowledged that they had no right to hold my money and returned every penny—which I promptly donated to the Constitution-promoting charity the union had previously blocked me from supporting.
But as significant as Janus was, its impact was not as far-reaching as I had hoped.
In Pennsylvania, the “fair share” fee law remained intact, and teachers’ unions continued to write “fair share” fees into teacher contracts despite the Supreme Court’s ruling. That’s why I decided to continue with my lawsuit.
Now, after eight long years, it’s finally over. In May, a Lancaster County judge entered judgment against the Pennsylvania State Education Association and said that Pennsylvania’s “fair share” fee law is “unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31.”
My lawyers believe this is the first time a state judge has issued a judgment like this.
Teachers, firefighters, police officers and other Pennsylvania public employees now have a definitive judgment that says Pennsylvania’s “fair share” fee law is illegal if unions ever try to enforce these unconstitutional fees.
However, Pennsylvania’s obsolete “fair share” law remains on the state’s books.
That’s why I support legislation sponsored by state Rep. Kate Klunk (state House Bill 2042) that would repeal this unenforceable law and ensure that new and nonmember public employees are informed of their constitutional right to do their jobs without being forced to pay a union.
I submitted testimony in support of this and several other employee-empowering bills advanced by the House Labor and Industry Committee in January. It’s time to make public-sector unions more transparent and accountable to the employees they represent. Lawmakers can make that happen—without the need for eight years of litigation.
Jane Ladley is a former teacher in Chester County’s Avon Grove School District.
The author’s viewpoints are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fairness Center.