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Public employees can defund union

The headquarters of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association.

The headquarters of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

In June, militant officials of the union for faculty and other staff at the City University of New York passed a resolution blasting Israel and branding Jews who reside in Mideast regions where many of their ancestors have lived since biblical times as "Colonial settlers."

Union officials asked the university to consider boycotting Israel and urged the Biden administration to cut off support for the nation, which infuriated many professors under the union’s bargaining power. Baruch College finance professor Linda Allen described CUNY'S union leaders as having "no standing" and "no expertise," and being "unwilling to take any guidance from anybody" — while the same officials claim to speak for all educators under their control.

But thanks to a 2018 Supreme Court case, CUNY employees have an effective way to fight back: They can stop their money from flowing to union bosses. Members of Long Island's municipal unions should take heed.

The crux of the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 ruling is simple: The court ruled that public employees, such as CUNY professors, have a First Amendment right to refrain from paying dues to a union hierarchy they disapprove of, and that union dues can only be deducted from a public employee’s paycheck if that employee affirmatively consents to it. Because everything public sector unions do involves lobbying the government, the justices reasoned, being forced to pay anything to a public sector union counts as forced political speech forbidden by the First Amendment.

It may seem crazy that such a common-sense protection of freedom of association hasn’t always existed, but before 2018 public employees could be forced to pay for some union activities, even if they weren’t union members.

Now, leaving the union actually has teeth; not having to pay dues transforms the act from a symbolic statement to one with financial repercussions — CUNY professors earning $100,000 per year pay about $1,000 in annual union dues.

With more than 100 resignations from the CUNY union since June, its hierarchy could pay a steep price for prioritizing divisive politics over listening to the rank-and-file.

Union boss politicking is nothing new on Long Island, where the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association has long thrown its weight around.

A Newsday investigation in March uncovered evidence that PBA honchos have recklessly violated campaign finance laws in pursuit of electing politicians who will shield the police department from reforms the public is demanding. Rank-and-file officers should be concerned, too.

Suffolk County legislator and ex-cop Rob Trotta requested that District Attorney Tim Sini investigate the union’s shady campaign finance dealings, including tithing officer paychecks for political activity on top of regular dues — reportedly without their consent. Sini — whom police union bosses threw hundreds of thousands of dollars at in 2017 — rebuffed the request, claiming he has no authority to launch such an investigation.

But, under Janus, it’s all political — both dues and whatever charges union bosses are actually willing to admit go to politics — and both are fair game for officers to revoke. Cop union honchos are already spending on the next election: State records show Sini received at least $20,000 from cop unions this year through June.

Reform-minded Suffolk police officers disgusted by the PBA bosses' lust for political influence should look to CUNY professors. Members quitting the union and exercising their First Amendment Janus rights to revoke all union funding may be the only way to effectively counter politics-obsessed union officials who have forgotten those whom they claim to serve.

This guest essay reflects the views of Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research and newsletter editor for the National Right to Work Committee.

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