NYC Professors see Supreme Court as ‘last resort’ in battle with ‘antisemitic’ teachers union

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By Carina

A group of City University of New York (CUNY) professors has taken legal action against a teachers union, alleging that it promotes antisemitism. 

These professors believe that the Supreme Court may be their last resort in a legal battle that raises questions about their First Amendment rights. Here’s an in-depth look at the situation.

Legal battles over union affiliation in New York State

New York State law mandates that even if an individual chooses to leave a teachers union, they must remain members of a collective bargaining unit represented by that union. 

This unit effectively controls crucial aspects of faculty employment, such as pay raises, benefits, leave policies, and more, affecting both union and nonunion faculty.

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In 2021, the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY (PSC), a teachers union, passed a “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People.” Six professors saw this resolution as antisemitic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Israel. 

As a response, they resigned from the union. However, state law still requires them to affiliate with and be represented by the same union.

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Challenges in New York State union affiliation

Avraham Goldstein, a professor of mathematics and one of the plaintiffs, shared his concerns: “My family and I suffered severe anti-Semitic harassment and persecution at the hands of the Soviet Union for over fifteen years. I hoped it was all in my past. But now I am forced to associate with a union that makes anti-Semitic political statements in my name without my permission or consent.”

In 2018, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in Janus v. AFSCME, ruling that nonmember public employees could not be compelled to pay fees to a union, as it would violate their First Amendment rights. 

However, just before the Janus decision, New York amended the Taylor Law, which governs public-sector collective bargaining in the state, reducing the obligations of public-sector unions to nonmembers.

Before these amendments, unions were required to represent members and nonmembers fairly. 

Consequences of Taylor law changes and legal action

However, with the changes to the Taylor Law, unions like the PSC now have more freedom to treat nonmembers differently, offering them inferior services compared to union members. 

The Fairness Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm, represents the professors in their legal battle. 

The professors, all but one of whom are Jewish, have filed a lawsuit against the union, the university, and the city, invoking the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The legal filing argues that “the ongoing deprivation of rights… caused by state statutes and Defendants’ contracts, policies, and practices that designate PSC as Plaintiffs’ exclusive bargaining representative with their Employer, force Plaintiffs into a defined bargaining unit with others who do not share the same interests, and require some Plaintiffs to continue to financially subsidize PSC’s speech even though they have resigned their membership in the union.”

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First Amendment rights at heart of union affiliation lawsuit

According to the professors, “PSC’s designation as exclusive bargaining representative and Plaintiffs’ mandatory inclusion in a bargaining unit violate Plaintiffs’ speech, petitioning, and associational rights under the First Amendment.”

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This case was initially filed in a district court in 2022. In November of the same year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments and is expected to issue an opinion soon. 

If the decision doesn’t favor the professors, they are prepared to take their case to the Supreme Court.

Professor Jeffrey Lax, one of the plaintiffs, believes that the Supreme Court might be their only hope. He emphasizes that their goal is not merely to oppose the union’s views but to assert their rights and escape a union they view as promoting antisemitic ideology based on Marxist teachings.

Addressing campus antisemitism and union activities

Lax points out that antisemitic activism on college campuses has been on the rise, especially following attacks in Israel carried out by Hamas terrorists. 

He attributes part of this problem to unions promoting anti-Israel demonstrations on campus.

“These unions have almost limitless funds. They’re not using it to bargain, they’re not using it to help their employees better salaries or working conditions… they’re doing it for political and ideological gain and to indoctrinate students,” Lax claims.

In response to the lawsuit, a spokesperson for the PSC stated that the lawsuit is “meritless” and has been brought by non-members funded by the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Foundation. 

Union’s perspective on representation and controversial resolution

The union argues that representing every worker in a shop is fundamental to a union’s power and collective strength.

The resolution that sparked the controversy in 2021 highlighted the “continued subjection of Palestinians to the state-supported displacement, occupation, and use of lethal force by Israel” and required discussions about possible support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

While the union’s opinions on Jewish people and Zionism are concerning to the professors, their primary concern remains the forced inclusion in a bargaining unit that they believe disregards pervasive antisemitism on campuses.

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