April 21, 2024
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Appeal Filed in Ruling On Lawsuit by Six CUNY Professors Against Union

Six City University of New York (CUNY) professors who filed a federal lawsuit against the university’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) seeking to represent themselves in bargaining because of the union’s “anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel” pronouncements have won a small legal victory, but were denied on other issues.

Five of the six professors are Jewish and claimed in court papers the PSC’s political advocacy “harms the Jewish plaintiffs and singles them out for opprobrium, hatred and harassment based on their religious, ethnic, and/or moral beliefs and identity.”

The case, Goldstein et al vs. PSC, was heard Oct. 26 in U.S. District Court for the Southern Region of New York by Judge Paul A. Engelmayer. While the court agreed the union dues should be returned to the professors who have resigned from the PSC, it ruled against them on the two larger First Amendment issues that would have overturned provisions of New York’s Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, known as the Taylor Law. The law separates public employees into distinct bargaining units that share “a community of interest,” in this case the PSC.

The case has been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, according to Nathan J. McGrath, who was in court representing the Fairness Center, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Fairness Center and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation are representing the six pro bono (free of charge). The six are Avraham Goldstein, Michael Goldstein, Frimette Kass-Shraibman, Mitchell Langbert, Jeffrey Lax and Maria Pagano.

“We expected it,” acknowledged McGrath based on a 1984 case, Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, which held that an exclusive-representative bargaining system does not compel association in violation of the First Amendment.

In the court papers the professors said they “abhor” the political advocacy of the union and its positions on Israel, in particular a June 2021 “Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People.” As required by the resolution, “chapter-level meetings” were held, which the professors stated have fomented anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment among other members of the union.

The court allowed the one count compelling the union to return the dues that continued to be taken after some members’ resignations, to move forward, citing the Janus case. In that 2018 case, Janus v. AFSME, by a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court held that unions covering public-sector workers such as teachers, firefighters and police could not charge nonmembers for their services because doing so violated those nonmembers’ First Amendment rights “by compelling hem to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.” However, that portion of the case has been rendered moot since the union has since refunded the contested dues, according to McGrath.

The legal team representing the professors believes their case is unique because its clients are basing their claim on antisemitism. “We don’t think that issue has been brought up before,” said McGrath. “It’s so specific and we think it is precedent-setting. This case is about professors who felt like they deserved a place at the table.”

He said that sets it apart from the Knight case in that the government shouldn’t be able to force employees to be represented by an entity they believe is hostile to their religious beliefs. “We believe there were points of distinction that the court didn’t necessarily need to follow, but the Knight case was followed,” said McGrath. “We are hoping the appeals court will see those points of distinction and rule for our clients.”

The suit states: “Due to PSC’s expressed anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, none of the Plaintiffs believe PSC can serve as a fiduciary to represent them fairly in negotiating their terms and conditions of employment, or in any interactions with their Employer. All Plaintiffs believe, based on past experiences they have had with PSC’s poor representation of them or refusal to represent them, along with their opposition to PSC’s positions and speech, that PSC could not and would not fairly represent them in grievances, disciplinary matters, or other interactions with their Employer.”

Several of the professors represented have had a contentious history with the union and CUNY and have been subjected to threats and hostile actions because of their pro-Zionist beliefs.

Michael Goldstein, an administrator and adjunct business professor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, has been employed for 33 years by the university, 24 of those at Kingsborough, where his father once served as president. He believes PSC members are waging a war to get him fired. In recent years he has had nails placed in the tires of his car and seen hateful graffiti scrawled on a picture of his father.

Lax, a professor at Kingsborough for 19 years, cites in the lawsuit a determination he has already received from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that “PSC leaders discriminated against him, retaliated against him, and subjected him to a hostile work environment on the basis of religion.” Lax is Orthodox and a spokesperson for S.A.F.E. CUNY (Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY), which advocates for Zionist Jews at CUNY. It was founded in part as a response to discrimination by the union.

Avraham Goldstein is an assistant professor of mathematics at Borough of Manhattan Community College, a board member of S.A.F.E. CUNY and an observant Jew originally from the former Soviet Union. He has recently been embroiled in efforts protesting a pro-Palestinian display at the college, which accused Israel of “occupying” Palestinian land and “ethnic cleansing” and touched off a storm of controversy.

By Debra Rubin

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