Three teachers who want more of a say in how their dues are spent say they are being bullied by Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union.
Jane Ladley, who is retired, Chris Meier and Linda Misja are fighting the Pennsylvania State Education Association in court because they say their First Amendment rights are trampled by the union’s policy of using member dues for political purposes.
The three registered for a religious exemption to prevent their money from going to organizations like Planned Parenthood, which the union supports.
But in an ongoing battle with the union, the PSEA has been withholding their money for years while rejecting the charities they’ve chosen to support. The money has been held in escrow until the sides can come to an agreement.
Ladley, Meier and Misja are fighting the union in court for more control over where their money goes. But the PSEA recently introduced a new policy that forces them and other religious objectors to accept binding arbitration to resolve such disagreements, with no appeal. If the teachers refuse to go along, the union says it will give their money to a charity chosen solely by the PSEA.
“The PSEA wants to play the game but only if the deck is stacked in its favor,” said Karin Sweigart, deputy general counsel for the Fairness Center, which is representing the three teachers in two separate suits. “The union just took a bad policy and made it worse, demanding teachers give up their right to appeal, and if they refuse, unilaterally taking their money to support the union’s agenda.”
The PSEA did not respond to a request for comment.
In Pennsylvania, teachers who choose not to be a member of the local teachers union can opt out in one of two ways.
They can become a “fair share” member and pay a prorated membership that covers only representational services in collective bargaining. Or they can apply for a religious waiver, in which dues are funneled through the union and donated to charities the teacher picks — subject to union approval.
For example, Misja requested her money go to a Pittsburgh pro-life group called People Concerned for the Unborn Child, which is opposed to artificial contraception, in vitro fertilization and birth control. Misja’s second choice was the National Rifle Association Foundation, which she said she was rejected by the left-leaning union on the grounds that her pick was “too political,” she said.
According to a survey conducted by the Nevada Policy Research Institute and the Association of American Educators, almost 30 percent of union members polled would choose to opt out of their union if they could.
Real-world examples bear out that poll. In Wisconsin, where teachers won that option in 2011, the two biggest teachers unions — Wisconsin Education Association Council and American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin — have experienced a sharp decline in membership. WEAC lost more than a third of its 100,000 members and AFT-Wisconsin membership is about half of the 16,000 it once was, according to published reports.
Of the PSEA’s 180,000 members, 285 have won religious exemptions. The union designates about 170 IRS-approved charities those members can choose to support.
For the last four years, Misja has had more than $2,000 of her wages placed in escrow as she and the PSEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, wrangle over where it will go. Misja, who teaches at Apollo-Ridge High School in Armstrong County in southwest Pennsylvania, claims her choices were blocked by the union because they were deemed too religious and political in nature.
Last year, Misja filed a federal lawsuit against the union in an effort to legally establish that it cannot maintain an arbitrary practice of restricting religious objectors’ choice of a charity. She is also seeking injunctive relief to enforce the court’s ruling.
Ladley and Meier filed suit against the union in Lancaster County court in September 2014.
Ladley retired in 2014 from Avon Grove School District in Chester County. Her status as a religious objector was accepted in 2013, but her money has been held in escrow since then. Meier teaches history and economics at Penn Manor High School in Lancaster County.
“This is Jane, Chris, and Linda’s money, and teachers have the right to use their own money to support charities they believe in,” Sweigart said. “The PSEA needs a fair process to determine how disagreements are resolved, not one that gives the PSEA or a third party power to order teachers to comply with union dictates. We look forward to continuing to defend Jane, Chris, and Linda against the union’s unreasonable demands.”