I’m stuck with an anti-semitic labor union

COMMENTARY

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal

By Avraham Goldstein

As an observant Orthodox Jew born in the Soviet Union, I’m no stranger to resisting intimidation at significant cost. In 1971 my family petitioned authorities to leave the country after we suffered anti-Semitic harassment and physical assault. Our petition was denied and we were forced to live and work in that hostile environment for 15 years. Eventually, we settled in Israel, and I later established an academic career in New York. But the bigotry I fled has caught up with me.

I am a tenured professor of mathematics at the City University of New York. I joined the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, nearly 10 years ago. In June, union officials—who speak for me under state law—issued a resolution I, and many of my colleagues, view as anti-Semitic.

The resolution condemned “the continued subjection of Palestinians to the state-supported displacement, occupation, and use of lethal force by Israel” and required chapter-level discussion of possible union support for the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It equated the policies of Israel, of which I am a citizen and where I still have family, with apartheid. Many of my Jewish colleagues and I were outraged.

I had paid thousands of dollars in union dues for workplace representation, not for political statements or attacks on my beliefs and identity.

I decided to resign my union membership and naively thought I could leave the union and its politics behind for good. I was wrong. Union officials refused my resignation and continued taking union dues out of my paycheck. But those weren’t the issues that led me and five of my colleagues to sue them.

Under New York law, even if I resign from the union, I will never be free to bargain or speak for myself when it comes to matters of my employment as a CUNY professor. I am forced to rely on a union that says anti-Semitic, hateful things about Israel to negotiate on my behalf.

In New York, public employees who aren’t union members are still forced to accept the union as their sole representative for collective bargaining. The Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. Afscme acknowledged this power imbalance—effectively a state-sanctioned monopoly—which also exists in most other states. But New York takes this gift to union officials a step further.

In Janus, the court ruled that public-employee unions can’t force nonmember employees to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Knowing that many unions would still act as nonmember employees’ exclusive representatives, the court underscored that union officials have a legal duty to represent all employees fairly.

But right before Janus was decided, New York union officials convinced lawmakers to amend New York’s public employment statute, the Taylor Law. This amendment explicitly reduces what unions must do for nonmember employees, effectively undermining the protections the court in Janus called a “necessary concomitant” to the power of exclusive representation.

In New York’s eyes, nonmembers like me legally can be treated as an underclass, deserving of lesser services than our union-member colleagues. When my family fled the Soviet Union, we expected never again to be treated as second-class citizens.

Now I have a choice: Disrupt my life and damage my career again or rely on the constitutional protections that set America apart from most other countries on earth. I’m done running.

With the help of the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm, and attorneys from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, I joined my colleagues in filing a federal lawsuit in January to vindicate our First Amendment rights of free speech and association. New York law shouldn’t provide cover for unions at the cost of individual freedom. Nor should it countenance forcing Jews to associate with a union that doesn’t want them around.

Mr. Goldstein is a professor of mathematics at the City University of New York.

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