After three decades of union membership with the New Jersey Education Association, Sue Fischer had enough.
“I am not anti-union. I am a team player. I’ve been a teacher for 30 years,” she said. “You have to pay if you join and pay if you don’t join. That was so un-American to us.”
In an unprecedented step, the Ocean Township middle school teacher and a colleague are taking the NJEA to court by filing a federal class action suit against the state of New Jersey, the NJEA and their local union. They’re claiming the labor groups are violating Janus, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June that prevents unions from collecting dues if a public employee opts out.
“Unfortunately, New Jersey passed a law saying employees who authorized dues deduction in the past could only exercise their rights under Janus during one, 10-day period per year, which basically means for 355 to 356 days of every year, public employees in New Jersey can’t exercise their Janus rights,” said William Messenger, who is representing the teachers in the lawsuit.
In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an amendment giving public employees just 10 days following the anniversary of their employment each year to withdraw from their union.
“If nothing else comes out of this, teachers, or colleagues or state employees will know that they have an option,” Fischer said.
Fischer said she pays $1,245 a year for union membership. Before Janus, she’d been forced to pay 85 percent of that even when opting out. She added the bulk of the money goes straight to Trenton, and she says many teachers working in wealthier districts pay much more.
“We would love to continue to support our local and our county. Monmouth County Education Association is wonderful. They maintain their dues at $25 a year all these years. They give amazing workshops. They support us. But we can’t,” Fisher said.
The lawsuit seeks to strike down the New Jersey amendment and recoup fees paid by teachers without consent. Billboards lining the Atlantic City Expressway targeted the recent NJEA convention as part of a campaign by DC-based Center for Union Facts encouraging teachers to know their rights. Their report show the NJEA collects $120 million annually in dues.
“Thousands of teachers have gone to the website. They’re sharing our stuff on social, on Facebook and Twitter. We’re just hoping that if they were unsure about what it meant before, that this is getting them into that conversation,” said Charlyce Bozzello, spokesperson for the Center for Union Facts.
“Another big objection is how our hard-earned money is used through the NJEA in political ads, lobbying, not protecting our pension, not protecting out health benefits and continuing to increase our dues. I reached out to them. I have letters I’ve written when to Ms. Keshishian was president, never got a response,” Fisher said.
The NJEA declined an opportunity to speak on camera, but sent a statement from spokesperson Steve Baker: “This is another attack funded by wealthy anti-union groups seeking to undermine the rights of working people to form strong, effective unions. … We will defend our members against this anti-union attack, and our members will continue working every day to make our New Jersey’s public schools the best in the nation.”
For their part, the groups backing the suit say this is likely just the first of many.