A Major Court Case Could Decide Just How Much Power Union Bosses Have Over Employees

By Stan Greer

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York just heard oral arguments in Goldstein et al v. PSC,  a case in which six City University of New York (CUNY) faculty members make a number of explosive charges against the hierarchy of the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union.

In the view of the plaintiffs, five of whom are Jewish, PSC bosses have repeatedly advocated positions and taken actions that are “anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Israel.” By doing so, PSC officials have singled out the Jewish plaintiffs for “opprobrium, hatred and harassment” based on their religious/ethnic identity and their moral beliefs.

Plaintiff Michael Goldstein specifically charges that the PSC hierarchy “is behind” harassment and destruction of property he has endured while on campus, as well as an orchestrated campaign to get him fired for reasons that have nothing to do with his job performance. Plaintiff Jeffrey Lax calls attention to a letter of determination already issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in response to a separate case brought by Lax. The letter states that PSC as well as CUNY officials “discriminated against him, retaliated against him, and subjected him to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion.”

For these and a host of other reasons, Goldstein, Lax and the other plaintiffs, who are being represented by attorneys for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Fairness Center, want simply to dissociate themselves from the PSC. Their core goal in Goldstein is to overturn the union brass’s legal monopoly power under New York’s Taylor Act to speak for them in their dealings with CUNY on all matters concerning pay, benefits and work rules.

In response, PSC attorneys Scott Kronland and Hanan Kolko have been making a remarkable argument. This April, they suggested there was nothing anti-Semitic at all about the PSC’s plain stance that Jews today have no right to reside in the Mideast lands where the state of Israel was established three-quarters of a century ago and where many of their ancestors resided for thousands of years.

And in a June brief, Kronland and Kolko stated, effectively, that from a labor-law perspective it doesn’t matter if PSC chiefs are anti-Semites who want to curtail the hiring of Jewish academics as professors and support the firing of current Jewish professors who are Zionists, as long as they do not seek to incorporate their anti-Semitic agenda into the written union contracts negotiated with CUNY!

PSC attorneys’ argument is based on a cramped reading of the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous 1944 ruling in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co.  In Steele, the High Court found that racist railroad union bosses could not wield the monopoly-bargaining privileges granted to them by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA) to force African-American workers out of good jobs so that white workers could take them.

Steele established the precedent that, whenever a monopoly-bargaining statute “clothes” union bosses with quasi-sovereign power over employees akin to the power of legislators over citizens, Big Labor must not be allowed to exploit that power to trample employees’ constitutional rights. Citing Steele, Right to Work and Fairness Center attorneys contend that, as implemented, the Taylor Act violates the Goldstein plaintiffs’ rights to freedom of religion, speech and assembly under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

As this is written, U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer is charged with deciding whether the six professors’ case can proceed, or union and New York government attorneys’ premise that the U.S. Constitution permits union bosses to retain their monopoly-bargaining privileges even as they subject certain employees to “disparate treatment” and “hostility” based on the employees’ religious and moral beliefs and their ethnic identity is correct.

If PSC and New York government lawyers ultimately prevail in this case, then Steele’s modest, but important constraints on union bosses’ ability to take advantage of their privileged legal status to punish employees they dislike will be largely eliminated.

And the need for repeal of all federal and state laws authorizing union officials to acquire monopoly-bargaining power over employees, whether they choose to be union members or not, will be more obvious than ever before.

Stan Greer is a senior research associate at the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

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